Mayor expresses ‘regret’ over Stepps’ complaint, insists her focus will be keeping city ‘on course’

A day after Alderman George Stepps filed a complaint and asked Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter to determine if Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth should be charged with “malfeasance, misfeasance and/or nonfeasance” in office, the city’s first-term chief executive said she’ll “deal with that as I have to” while continuing to “focus on what I was elected to do — moving the city forward instead of backward.”

Hollingsworth said Stepps’ effort to have her removed from office has caused her “regret” because “his actions are delaying and endangering progress” for the city.

“I learned a long time ago that I can’t control what others do or don’t do,” the mayor said. “I have authority only over my own behavior. I’m a big girl and can take care of myself as far as my duties are concerned, but it troubles me that so many citizens have contacted and told me how frustrated they feel by the conduct of some of our elected officials. I have an obligation to all the citizens to do my best to help our city experience positive growth, but reckless disagreement and dissension can impede or derail that process.”

Stepps — along with Alderwoman Thelma Walker and Alderman Glen Brown — signed a letter of explanation to Hunter, outlining the trio’s reasoning in alleging that Hollingsworth is violating city law concerning residency requirements for department heads, primarily Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks, who resides in Cleveland County.

Brown, Stepps and Walker maintain that Hubanks should be a Pine Bluff resident, although Stepps recently withdrew a proposed ordinance that called for imposing a residency mandate for police and fire chiefs while excusing several other current department heads already residing outside the city.

Stepps said he decided to pursue impropriety charges against Hollingsworth after she recently told The Commercial she would veto Stepps’ proposal if an attorney felt it might be unconstitutional and land the city in litigation. Stepps said when he withdrew his ordinance, the city immediately reverted to legislation enacted in 2000. Hollingsworth feels that ordinance was “trumped” by a relaxed measure adopted in 2002.

Hollingsworth said that although formulating a response to Stepps’ complaint is “another item on my plate,” it “isn’t the main course.”

“I’ll show you my calendar so you can see for yourself that our schedule is unchanged and we’re moving in the same direction as far as the way we’re doing business is concerned,” the mayor said. “I’ll be the first to tell you that the residency requirement issue is vital to our city’s future, and in more ways than one. But it’s not the only oar in the water, and I’m not going to allow any storms that blow up to knock our ship off course any more or any longer than is absolutely necessary.”

The mayor, who contends that the 2000 ordinance on residency requirements may have been erased under “customs and practices” consideration since it hasn’t been consistently enforced, said Pine Bluff’s image is being “tarnished” by “ongoing disagreements and bickering” involving its mayors and council members.

“That type of dysfunction can take a crippling toll on our future as a city,” Hollingsworth said. “When site locators start their framework at the level of selecting cities as finalists for possible settings for new or expanded industries or businesses, they look at government interaction to see if a favorable and progressive atmosphere exists. The fact is that we — and that includes everyone — have to present a united front to be marketable for new commerce and new, better-paying jobs. If we’re not moving ahead we’re falling behind, and if we can’t get past our disagreements long enough to agree that we want more and better for our children and grandchildren, we’ll be our own worst enemies and probably have them wind up with less.

“We’re not competing just against nearby cities,” she continued. “We’re competing in a statewide, national and worldwide economy, and potential job investors typically aren’t interested in second- or third- or fourth-best locations unless they’re looking to pay second- or third-rate or even lower salaries. We’ve got to look beyond squabbles of the moment, see the big picture 15 or 20 years down the road and capitalize on our strengths and abilities. All of of us entrusted by the public to fill a position of authority need to rededicate ourselves everyday to being elected leaders and not just elected officials. But I’m defensive of our council members and can tell you that being a public servant is often a difficult job, and it’s impossible to please everyone.”

Hollingsworth said that although she respects Stepps and appreciates his public courtesies to her, she differs with him on his residency requirement stance.

“If we’re going to grow and prosper as a city, I think we shouldn’t handicap ourselves with residency requirements,” she said. “To get our city poised to become a more progressive and financially healthy community, we’ve got to be focused and deliberate on hiring the most qualified administrators we can attract. Times have changed, and we can’t do that now with a residency requirement.”

The mayor said she recently polled 10 cities she rated as “comparable” to Pine Bluff — Bentonville, Conway, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Harrison, Jacksonville, Jonesboro, Little Rock, Maumelle and North Little Rock — to determine their residency restriction for department heads.

Eight of the 10 cities have no residency requirements, she said.

Jacksonville mandates that all department administrators — including the police and fire chiefs — live within the city. In Bentonville, the police chief is required to reside within 20 miles but encouraged to live within five to 10, while the fire chief must be able to “respond to a fire within a reasonable time,” which was unspecified. Bentonville has no restrictions on other department leaders.