Mayor says she’s prepared to veto residency requirement proposal if council approves it

Mayor Debe Hollingsworth told a group of her supporters Tuesday night that’s she’s prepared to veto an Alderman George Stepps-sponsored ordinance on residency requirements for city department heads if the measure gains council approval. The proposal received its first reading Feb. 19 and is due for a second reading Monday night and could be expedited then for a vote, or could receive a third reading and be voted upon on March 18.

Speaking to about 40 attendees of a fund-raising social at Harbor Oaks, Hollingsworth said she is looking at a veto based on what she described as the proposal’s possible illegality. The ordinance would mandates that the current police and fire chiefs be city residents when hired and throughout their employment.

But other current department heads who reside elsewhere would be allowed to continue doing so. The measure states that administrators of the other departments would be required to follow residency requirement guidelines only when hired after the date of the ordinance’s adoption.

The mayor has said previously that there has been “some discussion” on whether such an arrangement would be constitutional

“I don’t think it would because it doesn’t make sense to me that certain restrictions would apply to some city executives but not to others,” said Hollingsworth. “And if I am told by the city attorney or hear from other lawyers or judges that it wouldn’t be, I think I would have a responsibility to veto it because of the threat of litigation against the city. This city can’t afford to lose more money on lawsuits. As mayor, I’m supposed to keep an eye on our finances.”

Hollingsworth said the issue “took on a new meaning” with her when Gov. Mike Beebe earlier in the day vetoed a 20-week abortion ban recently approved by the state legislature. Beebe said he believed the law was unconstitutional and the state would spend large sums in trying to defend it. The mayor said that each day she surveys new state and federal laws and how they might relate to Pine Bluff. She admitted that she sometimes becomes frustrated when legislation appears to be “working against cities and businesses.”

The residency debate began soon after Hollingsworth, on her first day in office, fired former police chief Brenda Davis-Jones and named retired PBPD Lt. Jeff Hubanks as interim chief. In response to a question from an audience member Tuesday night, Hollingsworth said Davis-Jones has “no basis” for a lawsuit against the city regarding her dismissal

“I’m still in awe that she was there as long as she was,” Hollingsworth said of Davis-Jones in her role as chief.

The mayor has stated that she will not initiate a search for a permanent police chief until the residency question is settled. “I will not let politics disrupt the hiring of the best qualified candidates for our public safety posts,” she said.

A new crime-tracking system being implemented by Hubanks shows promise to help reduce offenses, Hollingsworth said. She said the program will list “to a particular address” the city’s “crime hot spots” with details that will serve officers by raising their awareness levels

“Officers need to be armed with data, and when they are, I believe citizens will see more effective policing,” said the mayor.

Hollingsworth said that during her first two months as mayor, she’s been disappointed by the “total mismanagement and disregard for polices and procedures” she’s witnessed within several departments

“But that’s not everyone,” she stressed. “I don’t want to shed a bad light on our department heads. In many instances, their hands had been tied. but there are rules and regulations in place that must be followed. We’re getting there.”

The city needs to “get its house in order” before it can start a major drive to bring in new employment opportunities featuring improved salaries and benefits, Hollingsworth said.

“I wish it was as simple of us waving a flag to bring better, higher-paying jobs into the city, but that’s not the reality of the current situation,” she said. “But we’re moving in that direction, and I’m excited by the attitude of the people. My office gets calls every day from people saying they’re ready to help in any way needed, and want to volunteer their services. That’s the kind of spirit that produces positive growth.”

Expanding on the concept of increase, she said she wished she had been in a position to challenge a 2010 federal census that indicated the city had fallen to below 50,000 in population.

“I don’t think that was accurate,” she said. “I don’t think we dropped. If I could have, I would have requested a recount.”

Hollingsworth announced at the $50-a-ticket social that proceeds from the event and other funding had erased her campaign debts.