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Jonesboro politics: police, planning, renovation incidents result in public ire, resignations.

THE CITY OF JONESBORO has seen more than its share of political controversies in the last few months.

Between the flap over the selection of a new police chief, the resignation of the city planner and the gross underestimation of the cost of a building renovation project, city hall has seen happier times.

It all began a few months ago when former Jonesboro police chief John Morgan announced he was leaving to take the helm of the Gulf Breeze, Fla. police force.

The Jonesboro Civil Service Commission, which received about 70 applications, whittled the list to eight candidates, many of whom had recent managerial experience in the police departments of larger cities. One earned a doctoral degree; six held master's degrees; and some attended the FBI Academy.

Then there was Floyd Johnson, who served 22 years as Craighead County sheriff but had not been involved in law enforcement since 1988. It also seemed that Johnson's lack of formal education would weigh against his candidacy, given the fact that he did not continue his schooling past high school.

But in the end it was Johnson who got the call, approved by a commission vote of 3-1. The dissenting commissioner, Arkansas State University political science professor Jane Gates, abruptly resigned from the panel after the decision, saying that the principles of fairness and impartiality were "abused and in some instances flagrantly ignored" in the search process.

Next came the hubbub over the city planner.

James Shaw became Jonesboro's first city planner in a year and a half when he was selected about two years ago, filling in a very large gap in city government. The city has not developed a comprehensive land use plan since 1976, and there has been some disagreement as to whether that plan was actually adopted.

On Oct. 15, Shaw announced his resignation, claiming that his work was hampered by his superiors and that his third-tier position in the structure of city government violates a city ordinance. Instead of becoming a department head when he was hired, Shaw was relegated to an unusual subservient role in the city's Department of Public Works.

Shaw was aware of the bureaucratic structure when he was hired, but he later discovered an ordinance that established the city planner as an executive office directly supervised by the mayor. He claims that Jonesboro has made minimal progress in city planning because of undue bureaucracy.

"The land use plan is outdated," Shaw says. "The city has grown by about 15,000 residents since then, and it's also grown quite a bit in land area."

Shaw says there has been little support for a new plan from the council and the citizenry.

"We went to budget hearings last year and requested funding for a consultant. It would cost $180,000 or so for the plan and ordinance updates. The town is very conservative, and the plan will determine what the future land uses are going to be. I think that scares some people."

Around the same time of Shaw's resignation, it became apparent that a capital improvement project supported by Mayor Hubert Brodell would run far over the original cost estimate.

In a contentious 7-4 vote, the City Council decided in July that the best way to create a new police and courts complex would be to renovate an old Safeway building owned by the city. An architect told the council that it would cost around $1 million to do the renovation, compared with $1.65 million to build a new structure or put an annex on the City Hall building.

When the bids were opened recently for the renovation project, however, the apparent low price was $1.8 million -- about 80 percent above the original estimate. That is in addition to the $384,000 the city spent to purchase the building and property in the first place. It now appears from the bids that it would be cheaper to build a new structure than to engage in the planned renovation.

The woes of city hall apparently have the city's electorate concerned.

"There has been a lot of talk of replacing the council and the mayor," says Ron Kelton, one of seven new aldermen on the council. "I think that Jonesboro is undergoing great change, and some of our politicians are having to play catchup ball."
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Title Annotation:Jonesboro, Arkansas
Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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