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New blood at city hall.


A Businessman, Attorney And Ophthalmologist Alter Balance Of Power On The City Board

If the influx of new political leadership at City Hall is indicative of things to come, then Little Rock is in store for a sizable dose of change. There are now three new faces on the seven-member Little Rock City Board of Directors: John Lewellen, Dr. F. Hampton Roy and Meredith Catlett.

Lewellen is businessman with a long record of government employment; Roy, a politically hungry ophthalmologist who finally found an office to fill in 1990; and Catlett, a heavy-weight attorney with extensive business and political connections from her position as partner at the Friday Eldredge & Clark law firm.

In November, Lewellen and Roy were voted into office to respectively replace J.W. "Buddy" Benafield and Charles Bussey, incumbents who opted not to run for re-election. Catlett was appointed by the board members in January to fill out the remaining term of F.G. "Buddy" Villines, who resigned to become Pulaski County Judge.

This turn of events effectively installed a "Buddy-less" board and also helped bring about a first at City Hall: Catlett joins Mayor Sharon Priest and Lottie Shackelford in creating a triad of female leadership, the largest representation of women to ever serve simultaneously on the board.

"I usually don't dwell too much on whether there's more women than men or more men than women," Catlett remarks. "My selection merely shows that Little Rock is open-minded, and that sex is not really a factor."

The honeymoon has been short if not non-existent for Lewellen, Roy and Catlett. These new players and their four peers are facing a challenging array of complex issues that have big-buck ramifications for the city and the taxpayers who will foot the bills.

Lewellen is shaping up to be a mild-spoken yet cagey personality on the board. Catlett has the makings of a female alter ego to the thoughtfull-reticent role played by the board's other lawyer, Cyril Hollingsworth. And Roy is the outspoken do-gooder who tries to alleviate the gray from his black-and-white viewpoints.

City Hall observers are waiting and wondering how this new blood will affect the board's perspective on issues like the selection of a metropolitan park site in west Little Rock.

That $1 million acquisition has become a politically charged proposal that the city board failed to take action on for two years, including a last-ditch effort in December before a changing of the guard.

A 30 Percent Increase

The city board is already confronting the likelihood of a 30 percent increase in sewer rates to make needed repairs to an aging infrastructure.

Federal cutbacks are forcing the city to cut services like public transit or pony up more funds through a mixture of cost reductions and revenue enhancement to pay for the programs.

"Unfortunately, there's only two ways to get a dollar, raise one or save one," observes Catlett.

On another front, the new city board has hired the national accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche based in Parsippany, N.J., to undertake a $120,000 feasibility study of the $100-million Diamond Center proposal. Deloitte & Touche has reviewed similar projects around the country and established a track record of recommending some and rejecting others.

After this eight-week assessment is complete in the spring, they will be under the gun to move forward/hold back on this ambitious project. In this decision and others, they're going to catch hell whichever course is taken.

That leads to the question of why did these guys ever take on such a headache anyway and since they have, what impact will they have on public policy?

For Catlett, the answer to the first question is easy.

"As hokey as it may sound, I have strong feelings about public service," Catlett reveals. "It's the highest and best calling. We all have an obligation to give something back to the community. I truly believe that if you live in the community you've got to give back something, and we all participate in different ways.

"I hope we all take a long-term perspective on things. I think that's critical we not use band-aids to solve problems unless we absolutely have to."

Catlett is in the unusual position of serving on the board without having gone through the trials and tribulations of a political race decided by the electorate. She is an appointee filling out a two-year term.

Not that Catlett doesn't feel compelled to do the public's will, but she has no campaign promises to keep and could conceivably avoid worrying what the voters will think about her decisions come re-election time.

That all sounds intriguing except that Catlett is keeping her options open on whether she will run for office in 1992. "I have not made a decision on that," she reports.

Board appointees aren't precluded from seeking re-election either, and Catlett certainly wouldn't set a precedent if she did.

J.W. "Buddy" Benafield and Lottie Shackelford were appointed to the board to fill out unexpired terms, and both successfully sought re-election to their posts.

Benafield was appointed in 1982 to fill the position vacated by John Langston, who resigned to become circuit judge. Shackelford was appointed in 1978 to replace James Wallons, who died while in office.

Catlett first got word of her appointment on Jan. 28 when Mayor Sharon Priest phoned her with the news.

"I was pleased and honored because it was an outstanding list of applicants," Catlett says. "I made my decision to apply for the position a couple of weeks before the selection. I'm delighted to serve."

Friends and supporters were quick to call Catlett up and offer their congratulations as well as complain about pot holes in front of their homes. "Most of them were in jest," Catlett adds with a smile.

She is politically active and no stranger to the corridors of City Hall. Catlett has paid irregular visits in the past, typically on behalf of clients regarding zoning and other real estate matters -- areas that may now present a conflict of interest for Catlett depending on who is petitioning the city board.

Hit The Ground Running

The workload began immediately for the three new board members, and they have hit the ground running. In that regard, that's what separates them from novices in the past according to Mayor Sharon Priest.

"One thing I've noticed about the new folks is that they've jumped right in there," Priest remarks. "I really admire them for that. Each one has brought a new complementary element."

Priest affectionately calls Dr. F. Hampton Roy a hyperactive workaholic and describes John Lewellen as quiet and hardworking. In a nutshell, that also reflects the similarities of the two men and the different personalities that drive them.

One common interest that may have ramifications politically is both live downtown and are concerned about its neighborhoods, which won them political endorsements from the Neighborhood Coalition during their campaigns last year.

Lewellen is candid about his background which includes serving as immediate past president of the state Democratic Black Caucus and one-time owner of the Little Rock Barber College. He also operates 120 acres of timberland in Pulaski County and rents out a 300 acres of farmland in his native St. Francis County.

But trying to pin politically savvy Lewellen down about how his campaign support will translate into votes is nearly impossible.

For instance, does he support or oppose a sales tax increase as a method of funding needed revenue growth for the city?

"I'm certainly supportive of putting that and any other option before the people to decide," Lewellen answers diplomatically. A smile of acknowledgement betrays his non-answer on the always touchy issue of raising taxes or imposing new ones.

"Our method of arriving at the the same conclusion may differ," says Lewellen of the distinctions between him and Roy. "I believe in cautiously and methodically looking at all the facts."

Really Ready For Office

Roy has demonstrated a hunger to serve in public office that resulted in him spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue that goal, twice as an unsuccessful candidate for Lt. Governor.

The good doctor also has a voracious appetite for digesting reams of information to formulate his views, but unlike Lewellen, Roy isn't shy about sticking his neck out with an opinion.

"I have some political advisers around me that say I'm not political enough," he reports. "I like to gather information on an issue and come out with a decision. But I'm flexible enough to change my mind if there's a new argument."

Roy is the kind of guy who views the world in terms of black and white with few areas of gray. But matters of public policy have modified his outlook. "There's more gray than I anticipated," he concedes.

When it comes to what is needed to help restore the vitality of Little Rock's downtown neighborhoods, there are no gray areas for both men.

"I'm not in favor of creating tax breaks," Roy says in reference to using artificial incentives to attract more residents downtown. "I agree with the notion that there should be no free rides," Lewellen adds.

Lewellen and Roy believe opportunities and incentives (in the form of real estate bargains) are already in place to promote property ownership in the older neighborhoods around downtown. All that is lacking is changing a general perspective, whether it is real or imagined, that downtown neighborhoods are less safe than other areas of the city.

"Barely a week goes by without downtown residents questioning why they live here," Lewellen observes. "This primarily comes from our white brothers and sisters."

Measures to beef up police staffing are already in the works, and steps to improve neighborhood pride are touted as needed. The public school settlement should help remove any uncertainty and stabilize the situation, as well.

"I think it's a real downer to look at the census and see we lost 1 percent of our population whereas central Arkansas as a whole increased," Roy states.

Righteous Indignation

Roy was livid and not depressed when the Central Arkansas Transit Authority officials suggested that Little Rock wasn't going to pay all of its share of the bus system's operational budget and some bus routes in the city would be cut as a result.

CATA officials indicated that Little Rock was delinquent in meeting its financial obligations under the program and that citizens should voice their complaints about the proposed cuts to city hall.

Roy attended a public meeting and blasted CATA for employing what amounted to scare tactics and feeding misleading information to the public about the situation.

"I accept responsibility for everything I do," Roy says. "That's part of my personality to set the record straight. I won't stand by quietly and take the heat for someone else. They should be writing their congressmen to complain about the cut backs instead of getting mad at me.

"The federal government has helped get us into programs, and now people are reluctant to give them up. There's no question there's a need, but where does the money come from?"

That's where the rub comes, and the new members of the board appear ready to take their share of heat for making tough decisions regarding money and other issues. We'll see how they rise to the occasion in the difficult days ahead.

PHOTO : THE LR CITY BOARD: Back row from left to right: Lottie Shackelford, Dr. F. Hampton Roy, Meredith Catlett and Cyril Hollingsworth. Front row from left to right: John Lewellen, Mayor Sharon Priest and Vice Mayor John Dailey.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:new city board members of Little Rock, Arkansas
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Feb 25, 1991
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