Mayoral misstep provokes concern

In that “benefit of the doubt” sort of way, we’re willing to call it a rookie mistake. With just a scant eight weeks under her belt, incumbent Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth took a misstep in how she represented the decision to terminate Brandon Southerland from his post as director of Animal Control.

Hollingsworth initially told the Commercial that the termination “was simply a matter that we wanted the animal control department moving in a different direction,” but in an e-mail Hollingsworth sent to council members at 8:33 a.m. last Friday she said the termination followed an internal audit by Gina Devers of the finance department.

The e-mail stated that Southerland was found to have failed in making “deposits on a weekly basis as instructed, … was not using numbered receipts for cash that is being received (while) using numbered receipts for vet services … and used revenue to make purchases.”

While her initial statement is not wholly consistent with the subsequent revelation, the marked difference in the level of detail is inconsistent with her administration’s expressed intent to be “more transparent.” This said, we do not imply willful misdirection. It is true, after all, that firing Southerland represents a — substantial — change in direction.

Rather, this incident seems to be more a matter of not having a unified and complete message developed before elements of it were questioned by the Commercial. We hope that this experience provides the new administration with a bit of institutional perspective.

Given the travails of the last decade, the people of Pine Bluff have grown especially wary — and weary — of subterfuge, obfuscation and mercurial town leadership. Information that any rational person would expect to have flown freely from the executive offices of 200 E. 8th, was instead lodged in an ever-narrowing and corroded pipe of secrecy.

Last November the people soundly rebuked those destructive administrative tendencies. In so doing, they demanded exactly what Hollingsworth said she would provide: transparency. This episode wasn’t that; and while the bottom of it did not require the leverage of a dental extraction to which we had become accustom, it was needlessly cloudy.

On balance, we have already seen several promising departures from the old ways. At the last town hall meeting, the audience actually heard the mayor and the police chief both admit to not knowing the answers to questions from the public, coupled with promises to do better.

We agree that Animal Control, the Police Department and possibly other corners of the administration needed leadership changes. As the old saying goes, it’s not what was done, but how it was done.

This is a lesson our leadership has never seemed to learn. Perception drives reality. The public, having been beaten down by ineffectual leadership and cartoonish bickering between our elected officials, doesn’t have much patience left. We trust that Hollingsworth is aware of that sad fact.

Less than two months into the “new direction” for the city, we’re still willing to countenance a few shakedown cruises. Nobody is born knowing how to be an elected official; and while the learning curve is surely steep, the city expressed its willingness to let Hollingsworth have a go at it. Moving forward, we hope this is the last time we’ll be obligated to tread this particular patch of uneven ground.