Mayor vetoes police division’s move to former armory

Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth on Tuesday vetoed an ordinance directing a move of the police department’s patrol division from its current Commerce Road warehouse location to the old Army Reserve/National Guard armory at 1000 North Myrtle Street near Townsend Park and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The ordinance was endorsed Monday night in a 5-2 city council decision.

Hollingsworth wants the city to accept an offer from The Pines shopping mall to relocate the patrol division there.

Andy Weiner, owner of the mall, told the council Monday night that the mall needs police presence to help erase its image woes. He said people view the mall as being unsafe. Weiner said he and other investors are willing to spend up to $100,000 to renovate a 5,800-square foot space that the city would receive free of charge during the first three years of a 60-month agreement. In the fourth and fifth years, the city would be assessed “less than $1,000” in monthly rental fees. The city would be responsible for approximately $1,600 in monthly utility costs throughout the five-year period.

“Part of my responsibility as mayor is to help city government be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money,” Hollingsworth said Tuesday. “With that in mind, I cannot be comfortable signing this legislation when what I believe to be an obviously better option exists, one that would most certainly better serve the city’s future needs.

“I simply don’t see how the current ordinance would carry out the will of the people in their approval of a tax increase to allow a bond issue for a new police facility or improvements to the current Joe Thomas Public Safety Building in the civic center,” she said. “I don’t believe it’s right to restrict either the police department or the city by saying the police have to move to the armory.”

The armory ordinance’s five co-sponsors — Aldermen Charles Boyd, Glen Brown, Steven Mays and George Stepps and Alderwoman Thelma Walker — supported the measure. Aldermen Bill Brumett and Wayne Easterly opposed, and Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr. was absent.

Hollingsworth said at the council meeting that estimates on renovating the armory for the police division’s occupancy total about $700,000. The armory currently doesn’t have air conditioning. An air conditioning system would be provided free of charge at the mall, according to Weiner, who stressed that the city would be responsible for no taxes, maintenance or insurance on its mall space.

Walker objected to Weiner’s presentation, saying that he has owned the mall for a couple of years but hadn’t indicated an interest in having the patrol division there until opposition to the armory relocation occurred. Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks had joined Hollingsworth in stating favor for the mall’s offer.

Weiner said Tuesday that he “appealed directly” to former Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones when he first acquired the mall.

“I did not receive a favorable response,” said Weiner. “I did receive a tremendous amount of cooperation from Mayor (Carl) Redus (Jr.) and his office, but I did not push the request for a patrol station with him since I did not get a positive response from (Davis-Jones). It was only with the new administration and police chief coming into office that we attempted to make the same request. Unfortunately, the move to the armory was well under way.”

Weiner said he wanted to “apologize” to Walker and her council colleagues for not having previously related to them his wishes for the patrol division’s occupancy of the mall.

Hollingsworth believes the mall would provide the city with “the perfect flexibility” it needs in the patrol division’s move.

“We’re wanting improved facilities at little cost,” she said, “and The Pines would provide that while meaningful police presence there would help generate more tax revenues and aid in the mall’s ongoing development. Meanwhile, we need a location that we could use for storage of crime evidence, parks and recreation equipment and supplies, animal control support and perhaps even office space for crime scene technicians, and the armory could provide that.

“We have to have the flexibility so that if the library in the civic center becomes vacant within the next few years, we’ll be in a position to use it for police space, which could certainly be desirable,” Hollingsworth said, adding that the patrol division’s move from its present location would save the city about $40,000 annually.

Walker was angered by the news of the veto and said she’s becoming frustrated with Hollingsworth.

“The veto shows just how disrespectful that she is of the wishes of the council and the people,” Walker said of the mayor. “It’s her way or no way. She doesn’t know how to work with a council. She doesn’t even communicate with us. We hear things from (administrative assistant) Mrs. (Evelyn) Horton, not from Mayor Hollingsworth.

“The mayor doesn’t even know her role,” Walker continued. “She doesn’t understand the role of the council or the mayor. She thinks this city is her private property and she’s entitled to run it just as she alone wishes. We’ve all got to start trying to get along and build this city. It’s been a struggle ever since she took office. She needs to start thinking about what others want instead of just what she wants. This city belongs to everyone here, not just her.”

Walker was also critical of Hollingsworth’s decision to leave the country last week to participate in mission work in Honduras.

“She goes to Honduras to do missionary work while work needs to be done here?” Walker said. “I don’t have anything against mission trips, but she’s been mayor just six months and doesn’t even know how to do that job yet. She needs to be here learning to do the job she was elected to and is being paid for.”

Walker also took issue with Weiner’s statement that The Pines has a public image of being unsafe.

“There’s less crime at the mall here than there is at malls in Little Rock,” she said.

Walker said, too, that she and other council members were largely disregarded when they offered a compromise of placing a police substation at the mall.

“That wasn’t good enough for the mayor,” said Walker. “That’s just sad.”

A council override of the veto would require votes from six of its eight members.