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Little Rock's search for leadership.

State's Largest City Attempting To Fill A Void At The Top: The Factions Speak Out

Little Rock residents haven't voted in a mayoral race in more than 35 years.

In November, they might.

Forces are in motion to change city government. Proponents of such changes say the public must be given the opportunity to elect a dynamic mayor to fill a growing leadership void. They perceive such a mayor as a powerful chief executive officer coordinating an annual budget of $72 million and directing 1,653 full-time employees.

At least that's the idea.

Back in the real world, momentum does seem to be building to have a directly elected mayor with at least the vestige of a city manager and some ward representation on the Little Rock Board of Directors.

Advocates of change say there are basic reasons for altering the system now in place at Little Rock City Hall. And looking for a political savior isn't the primary reason.

"The major concern ... is representation," says Michael Booker, an attorney with Little Rock's Rose Law Firm and a special assistant to the president of the Little Rock branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Whether it's true or not, there is a perception ... that the city board is not truly representative of the citizens. They don't feel like they have ... their representative that they can take their problems or concerns to.

"Because of this perception, something is going to have to be done."

The sense of urgency led to four recent informal meetings to discuss Little Rock government. Among those attending were Booker; Jim Lynch, a leading force in defeating Little Rock 2000 initiatives in October; Martin Borchert, a businessman and former city director; Les Hollingsworth, an attorney interested in political redistricting and former city director; and representatives of Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now.

Three of those early-morning discussions were held at Arkla Inc.'s downtown Little Rock offices. Two city directors, Lottie Shackelford and Jim Dailey, were among those at the fourth meeting in the conference room of the Mitchell Law Firm.

"We had no preconceived ideas |about what changes were necessary~," Borchert says. "We just sat and listened."

Borchert says a commitment was obtained from city directors to solicit public input. The fourth meeting resulted in a decision to allow the city board to take the issue and run with it.

A task force will be created to gather public comment. The task force likely will be composed of less than a dozen members. Among them will be two city directors, Shackelford and Hamp Roy. Shackelford will chair the group. Other possible task force members are Lynch and Borchert.

If the city board doesn't have the ball rolling by the end of February, others will. Public forums are planned. They will be followed by a petition drive soliciting signatures at polling places during the May primaries and June runoffs. If successful, the petition drive could lead to a special election, perhaps as early as August.

If the voters then, in turn, approve a change in Little Rock's form of government, candidates will have time to file and campaign prior to the November elections.

Maps have been prepared in anticipation of dividing Little Rock into anywhere from six to 12 wards.

But there remain important points of contention.

A Choice Of Flavors

The idea of altering Little Rock's form of government is hardly a novel concept. In earlier efforts, however, the debate centered on whether a change was necessary. Many think this debate already has moved beyond that point, focusing now on what form changes will take.

"This is the first time I've been in city government |that~ I have felt people didn't like their officials," says Dailey, who would like to be mayor. "There is a general sense of unrest out there. The people who are most active are those who are supporting change, but if the debate is too divisive, then we won't have any change.

"... Even some of the traditionalists feel there is a need for change, which is an interesting development."

"I've always supported a directly elected mayor with veto power," says the current mayor, Sharon Priest. "And I believe it's important that the mayor is elected by a majority, not a plurality. That would require a change in state statute if we stay with the city manager form of government, and I support the city manager form of government.

"Under any condition, the mayor and board members need to be paid."

The issue of plurality (in which the candidate with the most votes wins without a runoff) vs. majority (in which a candidate must have more than 50 percent of the votes to be elected) may prove the biggest point of contention.

The prospect of having a mayor elected by a plurality weighs heavy on the mind of at least one Arkansas business leader, Warren Stephens, chief executive officer of Stephens Inc.

"The biggest |danger~ is getting a mayor elected by 25 percent |of the voters~," Stephens says. "... That's absurd. What kind of authority and mandate can that person have? Very little."

Others don't see it that way.

"I'm not concerned about sticking with a plurality," Lynch says. "When we |begin~ electing a mayor in Little Rock, it's going to create a high-profile race. I |see~ only a couple of well-organized, well-financed candidates running. You're likely to achieve a majority."

There are other potential sticking points.

"It seems to me the debate ... has served to mislead the public," says Curt Bradbury, president of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and chairman of Worthen Banking Corp. "The people who are anxious to change the form of government think |it~ is a simple task. And it is not a simple task."

Is it even realistic to believe a format change can be accomplished in time for the November elections?

"I don't know," Shackelford admits.

Major tasks facing proponents of change include deciding whether city directors should be elected by ward and drawing district boundary lines.

"I would hope that if we have strong community-based support |for the ward system~, we can set the district boundaries and avoid lengthy litigation," says Meredith Catlett, a city director and attorney.

Litigation could result in months of divisive debate and cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"In all likelihood, we'll end up in the 8th |U.S.~ Circuit |Court of Appeals~, and they'll decide where the lines are drawn," Bradbury says. "That's why I think it requires calm, reflective study."

A change in the city's system of electing directors would no doubt come under the scrutiny of the Department of Justice.

Ward advocates say federal oversight will not be as stringent as others fear -- federal court intervention in Pulaski County's school districts notwithstanding.

"If you do this thing in a fair and equitable manner, the federal government isn't a big, bad bear," Booker says.

Still, there are those who believe changing the city's form of government will not have a significant impact on how Little Rock performs.

"I personally don't think it makes any difference," says Walter Smiley, president of Smiley Investment Co. and the founder of Systematics Information Services Inc. "If we get our act together, any form will work. If we don't, nothing will work.

"The city's form of government should be looked at in a larger context. I don't think |the form of government~ by itself will make or break Little Rock. It is not the overriding issue ... Getting all factions together to work in a cohesive way is the paramount issue."

The timing of this movement also strikes some as odd.

"It is ironic that this dissatisfaction has come at a time when the board has three women |Priest, Shackelford and Catlett~, two blacks |Shackelford and John Lewellen~ and a group of directors who live in diverse parts of the city," says Ruth Bell, vice president of the League of Women Voters of Pulaski County.

But reform advocates believe how the mayor and directors are elected is as important as who is elected.

"Right now, the person who runs the city is |city manager~ Tom Dalton, and the voters don't have a thing to say about Tom Dalton," Lynch says. "Anything we can do to make City Hall more accountable is desirable."

The push for accountability and reform could spill over into other areas of city government.

Booker, for instance, says a dialogue might begin over whether the voters should be allowed to elect a city attorney.

Indeed, it appears the debate over the future of city government will be a sweeping one.

The office of mayor just happens to be at the top of the list.

Deja Vu All Over Again?

Will efforts to change Little Rock's form of government complete a 35-year circle?

The same year the crisis at Central High School put Little Rock in the international spotlight, voters approved changing the mayor-council form of government to a city manager system.

About 90,000 people lived in the state's largest city in 1957. Ten aldermen were elected from five wards. They were led by a directly elected mayor. They oversaw an annual budget of $3 million.

The stated reason for the change in government was widespread corruption and incompetence uncovered during the administration of Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann.

However, some people remain convinced the change was at least in part an effort to circumvent federal election laws and allow the city's white majority to maintain control.

That perception, whether real or imagined, has become an issue in the current debate.

Only four blacks and five women have served as city directors since the change.

Under the system that has been in effect for 35 years, seven directors are elected at large and augmented by a hired professional city manager.

These eight people run a city that has grown to 180,000 residents and has an annual budget of $70 million.

The title of mayor is honorary. Directors convey the designation every two years to one of their colleagues, who then presides over meetings of the Little Rock Board of Directors.

Three recent attempts to modify the system failed.

In 1982, a state law allowing Little Rock to directly elect a mayor was declared unconstitutional.

In 1987, a state law allowing the city board to adopt a system to directly elect a mayor and institute partial ward representation also was declared unconstitutional.

Later that year, an initiated campaign to change to the city administrator form of government was abandoned in a compromise and defeated at the polls.

Now, momentum seems to be building to return to a system that includes a popularly elected mayor. However, questions remain.

Could such a mayor be elected with a plurality or would a majority be required?

Would the mayor have veto power and the power to hire and fire city employees?

Meanwhile, would the city retain its at-large system of directors, return to a ward system or create a combination of the two?

There are factions on all sides.

In fact, talk of bringing back the old system of a strong mayor and aldermen elected from wards is a distasteful deja vu for some who remember the scandals of the 1950s.

Little Rock civic leaders are drawing a mixed hand regarding the form of city government.

What are their opinions?

Some are laying their cards on the table. Others are playing it close to the vest.

Here's a sampling of who stands where.

Close To The Vest

* Lottie Shackelford, city director and executive director of the Arkansas Regional Minority Purchasing Council.

* Tom Dalton, Little Rock city manager.

* Meredith Catlett, city director and a partner at the Friday Eldredge & Clark law firm.

* John Lewellen, city director and contract manager with the state Department of Human Services.

* Cyril Hollingsworth, city director and a partner at the Davidson Horne & Hollingsworth law firm.

* Walter Smiley, president of Smiley Investment Co.

* Curt Bradbury, chairman of the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and chairman, president and CEO of Worthen Banking Corp.

* Martin Borchert, former city director and president of the Martin Borchert Co.

On The Table

* Mayor Sharon Priest, city director and membership sales account executive for the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, supports a mayor who is elected by a majority of voters and has veto power. Priest is flexible on the issue of wards, but she favors compensation for city directors and the mayor.

* Vice Mayor Jim Dailey, city director and chief executive officer of Dailey's Office Furniture, favors a mayor elected by voters and a combination of ward and at-large representation on the board.

* Hampton Roy, city director and an ophthalmologist at the Arkansas Cataract Center, supports a directly elected mayor with directors elected by ward. Roy doesn't have a problem with having some at-large representatives.

* Jim Lynch, political activist and senior research specialist with the Arkansas Institute of Government at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, favors a directly elected mayor with veto power and a city council elected by wards. Lynch believes the mayor and council members should be paid for their services.

* Michael Booker, special assistant to the president of the Little Rock branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a partner at the Rose Law Firm, supports a return to the mayor-council form of government. Booker wants a mayor with veto power and power of appointment who is elected by a majority of voters. The council would be composed of at least some ward representatives.

* Jim Keet, president of Keet Management Co. and a former state representative, favors a directly elected major and a board composed of both district representatives and at-large directors.

* Webb Hubbell, former city director and a partner at the Rose Law Firm, successfully fought past efforts to change the city's form of government. But Hubbell now favors a directly elected mayor without veto power. He wants to retain the city manager and the at-large system of electing city directors.

* Warren Stephens, CEO of Stephens Inc., favors retaining the city manager form of government. Stephens has qualms about a directly elected mayor since under Arkansas law, a municipal candidate can win office without a majority approval by the voters.

* The League of Women Voters of Pulaski County has maintained a stance adopted Sept. 18, 1989. The group supports the city manager form of government and opposes a directly elected mayor. But the organization wants city directors elected from seven districts instead of at large.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles; mayoral election in Little Rock, Arkansas
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jan 13, 1992
Previous Article:Wonder State Travel.
Next Article:Moving up the ladder.

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