Questions about crime, residency requirements for city department heads and programs for young people dominated the floor as Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth hosted her first town hall meeting Monday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
With a crowd of between 150 to 200 in attendance, Hollingsworth presented her 2013 State of the City address and what she has called her “New Direction” for the city.
Hollingsworth also defended her decision to hire interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks — a move that has come under fire from some members of the city council because Hubanks does not live in the city limits.
“My charge as mayor is to fill the role or hire the most capable person I can find for the job of police chief or for any other job and I will not allow politics to enter into who I hire as chief of police,” Hollingsworth said.
Hollingsworth made the statement in response to one made by Elizabeth Wall, who said she was “tired of the residency issue,” and urged the city council to “move on.”
Wall said that “where a person chooses to live doesn’t determine how they’re going to get the job done, or how well they can do the job.”
Regarding the youth programs that many speakers asked about, Hollingsworth said: “We are ready to roll out programs for youth.”
She declined to be more specific about the programs, telling several people who asked to “wait about a month and see what’s getting ready to happen.”
In her State of the City address, Hollingsworth described the police department as “an integral component for accomplishing the city’s new direction.”
After listing some of the grants that the department obtained last year to hire four military veterans as police officers, to update technology and buy forensic investigation equipment, Hollingsworth said the primary goal of the department this year will be to focus on reducing crime and “bringing back the sense of security to our citizens.
“It is going to take our Police Department along with our citizens working together to help reduce the crime within our city,” she said. “It is time to take back our city and spearhead it in a new direction that is second to none. Truly, we want the public to trust us, not a blind trust but a trust built on a record of openness and fairness.”
She said one of the things the police department is doing is working to reform its image.
“For too long, this department has abdicated the management of its image to our detractors,” Hollingsworth said. “Great care will be taken that information released to the public is timely and factual. Our officers are proud of the work that they do and we want the public to share in that pride.”
Hubanks addressed several questions, including one from Claude Huskey, who said that he had been harassed and profiled simply because he was a black male. That harassment included being stopped by officers while he was out walking to a store, he said.
“I have no doubt that what you’re saying is true,” Hubanks said. “That’s the way things used to be and I can’t do anything about the past but in the future, you can hold me accountable.”
Hubanks also addressed a question from Donald Mohammad, who said he had filed a complaint against an officer several months ago, but had heard nothing about the outcome of that complaint.
“You’re entitled to an answer,” Hubanks said, telling Mohammad to give his name and telephone number to Deputy Chief Susie Powell, who was among those in attendance at the meeting. “I will get you an answer tomorrow.”
Rev. Michael Williams expressed concern about a city ordinance that prevents street vendors from setting up on a number of streets, including Olive Street, East Harding Avenue, West 28th Avenue and others to sell products such as Valentine baskets, even if the vendor has a letter of permission from the owner of the property.
Hollingsworth said the city “goofed” when it put out fliers explaining the procedures for obtaining a permit by street vendors, telling Williams that all the streets he mentioned were also state and federal highways and federal law prohibits vendors from setting up stands on those streets.
“We did not educate everyone on what the law is,” Hollingsworth said. “We may need to revisit that ordinance.”
Responding to a question about the possibility of curbside recycling, Hollingsworth said she didn’t have enough information to give Norma Ray an answer. “We will have it but I can’t tell you when,” Hollingsworth said.
Aldermen Bill Brumett, Wayne Easterly, Steven Mays, Charles Boyd and Lloyd Holcomb Jr., shared the stage with Hollingsworth, with Brumett saying that he had “heard more from this mayor in a month than in eight years with the previous mayor.”
Aldermen Glen Brown, George Stepps and Thelma Walker did not attend the meeting.
The next town hall meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. March 11 at the convenion center.