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Mad at city hall.

Are Little Rock's Growing Pains The Real Cause Of The Anger Directed At Politicians And Bureaucrats?

In 1987, Little Rock city officials waged a successful campaign for a $39.1 million bond program.

Four years later, voters are angry.

They believe the promises of 1987 have not been carried out.

Never mind that the city will have at least another $1 million for additional projects because the timetable has changed and the bond funds have earned extra interest.

Never mind that some high-profile projects such as improvements to the Dunbar Community Center and to a fire station in the Heights have been completed.

Many people thought all the projects would be done at the same time even though the bond issue was sold as a long-term program.

These citizens feel duped. In parts of Little Rock, there is an abiding distrust of city hall.

The perception is that officials don't know what they're talking about or are deliberately misleading the public.

"I'm not mad, but I know there are people out there who are," says Curt Bradbury, chairman and chief executive officer of Little Rock's Worthen Banking Corp.

"I've not felt that feeling of angst," says City Manager Tom Dalton.

But one angry executive says, "I think the whole |city~ board needs to go, and Dalton does, too."

The three observations provide the middle ground and two extreme attitudes about Little Rock city government.

It is not difficult to flush out critics.

But what is generating the sort of high-octane emotions that advocate a clean sweep of the Little Rock Board of Directors and the city manager's office?

"It's Little Rock growing up," Bradbury says. "What city of our size is any different? I'm certainly not down on this community. I think arguing is part of the process.

"We're just now beginning to deal with the fact that we're not a benevolent dictatorship now that Billy Rector is gone ... There's never going to be one guy who is going to tell everybody how to do things. There are too many diverse groups out there now, and I think that's good."

"I'm not sure if middle-class voters feel they're represented," says Tom Ferstl, president of Affiliated Real Estate Appraisers of Arkansas. "I would say the country-club set and the poor people certainly have a voice."

When voters don't believe they have a say, they vote no, especially when it comes to higher taxes.

Some describe the Oct. 8 failure of the Little Rock 2000 sales-tax initiatives as a no-confidence vote aimed at city government.

"Obviously, there are some anti-tax people out there, but didn't the city-directed initiatives lead the line items on the ballot?" Dalton asks.

"The great thing about |the Little Rock 2000 campaign~ is that it energized the community as demonstrated by the record voter turnout," Bradbury says. "That is what's exciting about the whole thing even though the project failed this time."

Change Of Government

The cry is growing louder to return Little Rock to a political system in which the mayor is elected by popular vote.

Critics believe the current system of government -- in which a member of the board is elected mayor by his or her fellow board members -- doesn't adequately reflect the will of the people.

"They don't think the government is responsive or accountable," says Jim Lawson, director of Little Rock's Neighborhood Revitalization and Planning Department. "The reality is they can talk with me or they can talk with Tom Dalton. Of course, in the world of politics, perception is reality.

"No matter what the perception is, we have a responsive and progressive city government."

"How the primary leaders should be elected and how the city is represented is an issue ... across the country," Dalton says. "Many cities have set up a mandatory review of their form of governance every decade.

"The form of governance tends to break down 50-50 between the council-manager and mayor-council forms. The issue of trust in city hall and public officials is a national issue."

But is the issue of trust more important to the public these days?

"My impression is it has always been there and always will be," Dalton says of distrust. "The phrase you can't fight city hall has been around for years."

Ferstl believes the actions of Little Rock city officials have helped perpetuate that outlook.

He cites a project to widen Rock Creek. The effort will take some soccer fields out of commission at Henderson Junior High School.

"Dealing with the city attorney has been aggravating," Ferstl says. "And the city engineer is evasive ... and unwilling to let us look at their plans, although they're probably covered under the Freedom of Information Act.

"I'm not arguing the flood situation doesn't need to be taken care of. But the city needs to do something to replace what has been taken away. I know hundreds and hundreds of people who are upset about this project, and they probably voted against |Little Rock 2000~. They were so mad at the city fathers and mothers that there was no way they were going to vote for the project."

But Ferstl adds, "I don't think changing our form of government will help. In fact, |returning to the ward system~ may make things more parochial."

"Maybe we're going back to the 1960s," Lawson says. "We went through a long period of apathy in this city ... A lot of people didn't think they could make a difference. It's good and healthy that people are getting involved. They can help us solve the problems that don't have easy answers."

A common complaint is that city planning officials are too stringent in requirements for rezoning, site review, etc.

"It has always been difficult to get a building permit, and maybe that's the way it should be," Ferstl says. "I definitely think there's an arrogant manner at the planning department ... You never hear constructive alternatives. It's just bye. Close the door."

"I don't see us as turning people away," Lawson says. "We go out of our way to work with people. In the old days, we never had neighborhood input. We're getting a lot of general complaints, but no one is pointing out specific problems in need of specific remedies.

"I have a theory that if you stood on a corner and handed out $5 bills, someone would complain you weren't handing out $10 bills."

Is it more difficult to obtain approval for a project in Little Rock than cities of comparable size?

"That is absolutely not the case," Lawson says. "Compared with Scott, it is. But you go into other cities our size, and it's much worse. In some cities, a rezoning request can take up to two years. That's not the situation here.

"But we are creating a new standard of development to put us above typical communities. You'll be able to see the difference in a few years."

In a few years, many believe, Little Rock also will be operating under a new form of government.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Little Rock's city manager's office and city board under scrutiny and attack
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 11, 1991
Words:1165
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