Divided council votes to make municipal races partisan


An approved ordinance requesting the Jefferson County Democratic and Republican parties’ committees to conduct primary elections for municipal offices beginning in 2014 nearly brought Washington-style political gridlock to Monday night’s Pine Bluff City Council meeting.

For a number of years, municipal candidates have sought election as independents, avoiding hefty fees assessed by the local party committees. But council members Charles Boyd, Irene Holcomb, George Stepps and Thelma Walker figured it’s time for a change and to take measures to deter so many persons from obtaining ballot spots, although the legislation won’t stop anyone from running as an independent.

In last month’s general election, nine independent candidates crowded the mayoral field, and Holcomb believes voters might be better served with a more restricted field. In addition to having to pay the party filing fees, future candidates who choose to challenge one another in the May primaries will have to obtain a much larger number of signatures on their petitions.

“I like it like it is right now,” Alderman Wayne Easterly said during discussions. He figured the proposed change “would just make money for the parties” and added, “What’s wrong with America right now is the parties.”

Alderman Steven Mays was stronger in his criticism of the resolution, saying it would injure potential future candidates and that while “independents work for the people, Democrats and Republicans work for their parties.”

“I think this is wrong,” Mays, said prompting Holcomb — the council’s senior member who will be stepping down in January — to fire back: “I don’t appreciate people when they try to deface legislation.”

Alderman Glen Brown requested that he be added as a co-sponsor of the measure, which for all practical purposes settled the issue before a vote was taken. The resolution was approved in a 5-3 decision with Alderman Bill Brumett joining Easterly and Mays in opposition.

After the meeting, Holcomb said she wanted to “remove” any possible thoughts that the measure might have somehow been aimed against Mayor-elect Debe Hollingsworth, who won last month’s election without a runoff while falling just shy of a full majority.

“It had nothing to do with her winning,” said Holcomb. “It’s just a personal preference for me and some others, but Mayor-elect Hollingsworth’s victory was a mandate. She won overwhelmingly, and I have been impressed by her and the way she ran her campaign.

“I know she’s going to be respected as our upcoming mayor,” Holcomb continued. “People already respect her. You can see that by the way she dominated the voting. I think she can do well as mayor.”

Mays was testy on some other issues as well.

When the process stalled on a second reading of a Mays-sponsored ordinance involving amending current codes on the placement of speed breakers or bumps on city streets, Mays said, “The community wanted this.”

Stepps said he questioned the proposal’s liability issues.

Brumett commended Mays for his efforts, but suggested such legislation be dispatched to appropriate committees for additional considerations before being placed on agendas for possible voting.

“I understand,” said Mays.

“Then why don’t you do that?” replied Brumett.

Mays said such efforts “wind up” with “nothing done,” and added, “All we do is shuffle paper.”

When the party primaries measure was introduced later, Mays asked if it was going to be referred to committee. Holcomb attempted to ease the situation, agreeing that there should perhaps be more consistency in the way all proposals are handled.

In other business not previously reported, the council approved ordinances that:

• Authorized a short-term financing agreement with Pine Bluff National Bank to acquire four police vehicles.

• Amended the city’s code of ordinances regarding provisions of the municipal employees’ retirement system.

• Amended the zoning code on temporary housing for emergency services.

• Amended an ordinance on closing a portion of an alley in Block 18 of Eureka Heights, Addition No. 4, between West 13th Avenue and Lee Street northwest.

Receiving a second reading and being placed on the calendar was an ordinance aimed at ensuring businesses meet their local tax obligations or be disallowed from continuing to operate.

Endorsed resolutions:

• Authorized agreement with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department for improvements to University Drive and appropriated funds to pay for the improvements. Funding will include a $250,000 grant recently received from the Delta Regional Authority.

• Directed the police department to reimburse uniformed officers for the cost of purchasing new hats.

• Authorized the mayor to to submit a request for a $191,000, 20-percent matching Brownfields grant for development of a community site at 601 South Main Street.

• Provided for placement of costs of correcting certain nuisances on tax books for collection as delinquent taxes.

• Appointed Mary Flowers, Nicholas Makris, Carla Martin and Laura Smart to the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas’ board of trustees.

• Commended Leigh Cockrum, Patrick Colclasure, Virginia Hymes and Walter Johnson for their collected service to the arts center board.

During a public safety committee meeting before the council session, Projects Director Larry Matthews spoke on a need for council direction on the continuing quest for a new downtown police facility, but Easterly countered that the city’s recently acquired old Stone National Guard armory should be considered. Easterly said a question exists on whether the city can truly afford an expense of more than $2 million for a new building with just $1.4 million in revenue from its bond issue.

Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones said she would like to see a new structure and is counting on grants to eliminate any cost differences.

Easterly said he’s heard a number of citizens express wishes for police substations throughout the city.

“Closeness to the police provides peace of mind,” said Easterly.

During a ways and means committee meeting, city Finance Director Steve Miller advised the panel it should consider making a one-time contribution of $394,000 to the old fire pension fund in order to receive $87,000 in premium state tax revenue. The contribution must be made by Dec. 31, so the matter will likely be on the agenda for the Dec. 17 council meeting.

Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. urged support for the contribution, which would likely have to come from the city’s reserved funds.

“Let’s do what we need to do for our public servants,” said Redus. “What’s important right now is how we take care of the pension funds.”