Stepps pulls residency requirement ordinance, council votes to leave commission unchanged


Add another chapter to the continuing saga of Pine Bluff’s residency requirement controversy. And meanwhile, prepare for more noise in a growing flap over the parks and recreation commission.

Alderman George Stepps pulled his latest ordinance regarding residency requirements for city department heads at Monday night’s Pine Bluff City Council meeting, saying he had grown weary of back-and-forth deliberations on the matter with Mayor Debe Hollingsworth. Stepps said his decision to yank his proposal was prompted by Hollingsworth’s published comments last week that she was prepared to veto the measure if it was approved and either the city attorney or another lawyer said it could result in litigation against the city.

But while Stepps made a retreat of sorts, he also went on the offensive, saying he was going to “require” Hollingsworth to enforce current guidance on the subject. Presently, two separate ordinances relate to the residency issue, and City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott has issued an opinion that the earliest ordinance, which mandates local residency for the police and fire chiefs, rules.

The disagreement began Jan. 1 when Hollingsworth, shortly after taking office, fired then-Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones and named retired PBPD Lt. Jeff Hubanks as interim chief. Hubanks resides outside the city. Hollingsworth has argued that Hubanks’ home address shouldn’t matter since a previous police chief who never established legal residency here and several other department administrators hired by her predecessor, Carl A. Redus Jr., continue to live elsewhere.

The parks and recreation commission hubbub commenced last year with a shortfall of over $100,000 in a summer youth program. A commission committee initially suspended and then dismissed both department Director Angela Parker and community centers Director Laura Hildreth over the problem in December, but in January the full five-member commission decided to rescind the firings and placed the pair on conditional probation.

Hollingsworth then publicly stated a desire to dissolve the commission so that the department would report directly to the mayor and council. On Feb. 20, the council’s public works committee — composed of Stepps and Aldermen Bill Brumett and Steven Mays — voted unanimously to recommend that instead of dissolving the commission, the panel be placed on a nine-month probationary period and required to adhere to several stipulations, one of which was an increase to 11 members. Four commissioners were present and did not state opposition to the decision.

A tide of resentment, however, began to rise when the commission met Feb. 27.

At Monday night’s council meeting, after Mays’ report on the committee session, Stepps announced he was withdrawing his support of the committee recommendation. Stepps, a former parks and recreation commissioner, said he had received “numerous calls” about the proposal, and “the community” didn’t desire the committee to change its membership numbers, which have been the same since its 1970 inception.

After an ordinance on the directed alterations to the committee received its first reading, a non-binding resolution calling for the commission to continue in its present form was introduced. The resolution, sponsored by Alderman Glen Brown, read that “attempting to micromanage the commission’s administration” is “inconsistent with its status as an independent body and contrary to state law.”

In a discussion with council members, Hollingsworth reviewed the commission’s responsibilities according to council guidance, saying the commission had failed. Noting that the parks and recreation department was more than $50,000 over its 2011 budgeted amount, the mayor warned that the department is already experiencing overages in the 2013 budget. The mayor said the commission needs oversight and the council should seek to ensure that the city is a good steward of taxpayers’ monies. She added that if the commission is to remain intact, it needs more members so its committee abilities can be strengthened.

Stepps responded by saying the commission’s format has never changed, and suddenly — after 42 years — it’s supposedly not working properly. He indicated that the fault with the financial shortfall is on the shoulders of Hildreth and Parker, not the commission, but Hollingsworth said the council’s own guidance states the commission is responsible for monetary oversight.

Stepps said adding more members to the commission is unnecessary. He said that while more than four decades have transpired without “blame” placed on the commission, “some of us have been here just two months and can see all of the problems,” apparently referring to the mayor.

Hollingsworth replied that Stepps was correct on the length of her service as mayor, but added, “It didn’t take me long to see we have a budget problem.”

Brumett took his counterparts to task, saying, “If you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get the same thing you’ve got.” He said the department is “headed to another $100,000 shortfall,” and suggested those who favored the current commission’s continuance could expect blame if and when a new shortage occurred.

“We’ve got to get involved or leave them alone,” Hollingsworth said.

The resolution passed by 5-2. Brumett and Mays cast the nays. Brown, Stepps, Alderwoman Thelma Walker and Aldermen Charles Boyd and Lloyd Holcomb gave nods. Alderman Wayne Easterly was absent because of illness within his family.

In other business, the council adopted two ordinances and another resolution and heard second readings of two ordinances and the first of another.

The ordinances gaining approval:

• Provided for the rezoning of a 3.5-acre site on Sunset Drive west of Bryant Street; and

• Approved budget adjustments made to the 2012 budget.

The endorsed resolution provides for placement of costs of correcting certain nuisances on tax books as delinquent taxes and collected as such.

Ordinances receiving second readings called for:

• Amending current city guidance to provide for review by the council of decisions of the planning commission granting applications for uses permitted on review; and

• Adopting various energy codes for city construction guidance.

Receiving its initial reading was an ordinance amending current guidance on transient merchants.

A Mays-sponsored resolution to establish an annual motorcycle and boat show here stalled when Mays failed to receive a second on his motion for adoption.