Residency requirement at heart of controversy — Interim chief one of six department heads living outside city

Pine Bluff City Council members seemed divided regarding a controversy surrounding Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks, but expressed hope that the situation can be resolved soon.

Hubanks, appointed by Mayor Debe Hollingsworth shortly after she fired former Chief Brenda Davis-Jones on Jan. 1, lives in Cleveland County. He is one of at least six city department heads currently residing outside the city, according to information obtained by The Commercial from city records.

An ordinance adopted in 2000 states that department directors — including the police and fire chiefs — may not serve unless they’re city residents “continuously during the term” of their service.

“Continued residency in the city during such term of such service shall be considered a condition of employment and failure to do so shall constitute grounds for termination,” the measure reads.

So, should Hubanks — as an interim chief — be forced to comply with a residency requirement in a non-permanent appointment? And if an interim chief must comply with such a requirement, shouldn’t the other department heads currently living elsewhere be made to establish residency within the city?

The council’s administration committee — chaired by Alderman George Stepps and also including Aldermen Bill Brumett and Lloyd A. Holcomb Jr. — will meet at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers to consider the issues. The meeting is open to the public.

Holcomb, a freshman legislator, said he needed to further research the matter before commenting. But Brumett, the senior alderman, and ranking veteran Stepps believe the committee may be able to reach an accord.

“I think we can resolve things fairly quickly,” Stepps said. “We just need to determine in which direction we’re going to proceed. We need to determine if we’re going to enforce it or not. I think it needs to be enforced on interim and permanent department heads. I haven’t looked at what other department heads will be involved, but we need to get this settled and get it done right. It may not be easy, but we have to deal with it.”

“We live in a different world than we did 13 years ago,” Brumett said. “People can communicate quickly without living so close to their work places. According to the roadways involved, people can live out of the city and reach destinations here as quickly and even faster than they might from some locations within the city. I don’t think we need to risk losing any of our good department heads who are residing elsewhere by uprooting them. We haven’t been enforcing the ordinance, so why is it so critical that we start doing so now? I think we need to be reasonable and realistic.”

Stepps said that some of the other non-resident department administrators were hired by former Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. The remainder, he believes, may have been “grandfathered” and allowed to continue to live outside the city if they were employed and doing so before the ordinance’s adoption. He believes those appointed by Redus may not have been “informed” of the standard.

“Now, they’ll be given an opportunity to move into the city to deal with the ordinance,” if it’s maintained, Stepps said. “I know that might seem harsh, but if we’re going to abide by the ordinance, that’s the way we’ll have to do it.”

Brumett believes the measure “needs to be removed” from the city’s code of ordinances.

“We need to be fair with everyone,” he said. “When Redus hired people who lived elsewhere and didn’t move into the city, no one said anything because they thought he was getting the best people for the job. There’s already been some precedents set.

“I think most of us realize that there can be a lot of circumstances involved,” he continued. “A department head might need to live elsewhere because of their spouse’s job or because they’re taking care of their elderly parents. Our goal should be to hire the best administrators we can find and if they can be here when they’re supposed to be and take care of their responsibilities, grant them some flexibility otherwise. I think most people would prefer to be treated like that themselves.”

Brumett said he has “faith” that the committee “will listen to what the people want and then get it done.” The panel is charged with making a decision and then recommending it to the full council.

Alderwoman Thelma Walker is firmly opposed to eliminating or changing the ordinance, and said she believes Hollingsworth “got some bad advice” in appointing Hubanks while knowing that he wasn’t a Pine Bluff resident.

“I’m not trying to usurp (Hollingsworth’s) authority and it’s not a personal matter, but she knew about the residency requirement because I told her,” Walker said. “When the mayor ran on saying that she’s going to change things, she should have realized there has to be hard decisions. I think that when a person comes into an office like mayor here they have to walk softly until they get things figured out.”

Walker said she wants to help Hollingsworth in bringing the differences that voters indicated they want.

“People said they were tired of Redus and wanted changes,” Walker said. “So, let’s make them. Let’s start enforcing our ordinances and stay on that track. It is what it is.”

Alderman Glen Brown initially sounded as if he sees no room for anything but the ordinance’s enforcement.

“I think the chief should live here,” he said. “He’s getting a salary from taxpayers’ money and he ought to be paying taxes here himself so they can get a return. I’m not responsible for those hired in the past. We’re talking about hiring or not hiring someone now by the law. That’s our job.”

But Brown hinted there might be room for compromise.

“I hope it comes to an agreeable end soon so we can move forward,” he said. “There’s a lot of other work for us to do.”

Alderman Wayne Easterly maintains that former Interim Chief Collier Hill, appointed by Redus after the mayor’s dismissal of John Howell, was never a true Pine Bluff resident, as some council members insist. But he discounted Hill’s brief stay here as a true point of comparison with the question on Hubanks’ residency.

“A place of residence is where you vote,” Easterly said. “Interim Chief Hill came here from Arizona and his family stayed behind there. But I’m not certain all that should matter anyway because I’m not sure an interim chief should even have to abide by such an ordinance.”

Alderman Steven Mays said he’s already talked to some of the other non-resident department heads.

“And I need to take a deeper look at my options on this ordinance,” he said. “I know it would pose a hardship for some of them to have to move, but it’s the council’s job to make the best decision for everyone involved, and that especially includes the citizens and the workers.”

Mays, who said he is “fasting and praying over the issue,” said he is “devoted to making the right decision on this.”

Alderman Charles Boyd did not return a telephone call.