Mayor Debe Hollingsworth received a proverbial baptism by fire Monday night as she and Pine Bluff City Council members — after completing their business session — drew verbal heat during a spirited public comment period.
Sam Whitfield, a brother of Assistant Police Chief Ivan Whitfield, accused Hollingsworth and her allies of prejudice in their process of naming retired Lt. Jeff Hubanks as acting chief after Hollingsworth’s Jan. 1 firing of former Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones. Sam Whitfield said all of the interim candidates were white and Ivan Whitfield “was not given a chance.”
Davis-Jones and the Whitfields are black. The mayor, who was presiding over her first regular council meeting, and Hubanks are white.
Ivan Whitfield, interviewed later, said he feels “disrespected” by Hollingsworth.
“I always said I would be interim chief, but I don’t want to now,” Ivan Whitfield said. “This is not about Jeff Hubanks. He and I are friends. It’s just the way everything went down.”
Whitfield has nearly 30 years with the department while Hubanks has 27. Whitfield said he had a representative send a letter explaining his position on the matter “last week,” but he’s not certain if all of the aldermen and Hollingsworth had received their copies. The letter, Whitfield said, “explained the chain of events that caused me to feel disrespected.”
“But I want to emphasize that I’m not upset with Jeff Hubanks,” he said.
Sam Whitfield was also critical of Hollingsworth for allegedly attending a city-connected “mediation hearing” before “receiving her oath,” and indicated that the mayor and her husband, former alderman Jack Hollingsworth, improperly attended and asked questions during a December Parks and Recreation Commission Personnel Committee meeting before she assumed office.
The mayor was silent throughout the comment period.
Barbara Muhammad was even more direct in her remarks.
“You are Caucasian and have the attitude that blacks shouldn’t be supervising Caucasians,” Muhammad, who is black, said in her criticism of the mayor over Davis-Jones’ dismissal. Muhammad charged that Davis-Jones was fired because she’s a “woman” and “black.” Muhammad said Davis-Jones had guided the police department to “a new level of technology.”
She repeatedly questioned Hollingsworth’s qualifications and motives, including describing Pine Bluff as “75 to 80 percent black” and asking the mayor, “So why do you want to be over a town that is predominantly black?”
The council received some testy statements as well.
Kevin Reese said that for the past two years, residents had sought change in the city’s administration. He said the council and Hollingsworth will each be held accountable.
“It takes all of you,” Reese said, asking council members if they were “representing the interest of the people.”
“The future of Pine Bluff depends on you,” he concluded to loud applause.
Marty Guajardo delivered a similar message, but primarily aimed some harsh words at his Second Ward aldermen, Charles Boyd and Wayne Easterly, claiming that many of he fellow Second Ward constituents “don’t know who our aldermen are.”
“It’s time for you to be held accountable,” Guajardo told the aldermen.
First Ward Alderwoman Thelma Walker told the crowd that she always does her “best” to properly represent her constituents and the city as a whole.
The council ended its business session with a 31-minute executive session, requested by Fourth Ward Alderman George Stepps for the panel’s second closed-doors discussion of Hubank’s hiring in four days. The first executive session on the issue consumed 41 minutes in a called Friday meeting.
No decision was reached in either of the executive sessions, but Stepps announced after Monday night’s talks that the matter will now be forwarded to the council’s administration committee for additional consideration. Before Monday’s meeting, the council agreed that Stepps will chair that committee, which will also include Easterly and freshman Alderman Lloyd A. Holcomb Jr.
Reportedly, disagreement exists on Hubanks’ appointment in part because he does not reside within the city, a fact that could be in conflict with a pair of city ordinances.
The council endorsed two resolutions and an ordinance.
The resolutions called for:
• Appointing Walker to the Advertising and Promotion Commission, replacing retired Alderwoman Irene Holcomb.
• Providing for placement of costs of correcting certain nuisances on tax books as delinquent taxes and collected as such.
The ordinance, opposed by Mays, authorizes employees and officials to be reimbursed for gratuities added to meal charges when on city business. Mays said he didn’t think “taxpayers should have to be paying for tips” and suggested that employees and officials should perhaps “brown-bag it” more often to help save taxpayers’ funds. Boyd also questioned the legislation, but supported it.
Two proposals were sent to committees for more study — an ordinance concerning speed breakers and bumps, and a resolution seeking city funding for a loan fund to be administered jointly by the city and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and an annual appropriation to UAPB’s Economic Research and Development Center for small businesses.
Four ordinances — three concerning revisions to the fire department’s policy, procedures and guidelines manual, and another calling for the adoption of the 2012 edition of the International Existing Building Code for city usage — were given second readings.
The other new council committee rosters, with chairpersons listed first, were agreed upon as follows:
• Development and Planning — Boyd, Mays and Holcomb.
• Economic and Community Development — Walker, Boyd and Alderman Glen Brown.
• Ordinances and Resolutions — Alderman Bill Brumett, Easterly and Stepps.
• Public Health and Welfare — Holcomb, Walker and Brown.
• Public Safety — Easterly, Brumett and Stepps.
• Public Works — Mays, Brumett and Stepps.
• Traffic and Aviation — Brown, Boyd and Mays.
• Ways and Means — Brumett, Easterly and Walker.
Before the meeting started, local Circuit Court Judge Earnest Brown administered the oath of office to Boyd, Brown, Holcomb, Stepps and City Clerk Loretta Whitfield.