County Judge Buddy Villines is sending out the word that he won’t seek re-election next year, leaving office after 22 years as Pulaski County’s chief administrative officer.
Villines, who turned 66 in June and who served six years before he was county judge as a Little Rock city director and mayor, said, “It’s just time.” He said, “It’s been a great adventure. There’s no real specific reason. I’ve got my health. I still get excited every day.” But he said he had some doubts about making a race in each of his last two elections, but he had major projects to finish.
He said particularly important was completion of a watershed protection ordinance for Lake Maumelle. That’s due to take effect next spring, if a current study group doesn’t upend it. Villines said his generation of leaders in the county and its cities had compiled a good record during his time in office, but all of the major projects were the result of five to 10 years of work. He said most of his major projects were nearing completion and he wasn’t ready to embark on another. “I knew I didn’t want to be doing this job 10 years from now.”
A major bike trail expansion — trails and pedestrian/bike bridges have been among the monuments funded with significant help from the county’s road tax and Villines’ success at getting other funding support — got attention last week. “America’s Bridge” — a lighted Broadway Bridge replacement that Villines thinks will be a tourist attraction — should start construction in about a year. “I’ll see it completed,” Villines said, “I’ll just be in a different seat.”
Villines came back from the Vietnam war and went to night law school while working for the city of Little Rock. He later went to work in the Arkansas Local Services Department under the David Pryor administration. While working as unpaid city director, he ran a one-man consulting and public relations firm. County judge pays about $92,000 a year and participates in the public retirement system. Villines, I noted and he acknowledged, is now eligible for full Social Security benefits, too.
He said he and his wife can afford fully to retire, but he said he doesn’t intend to stop working on projects of importance to him. That could include work for Habitat for Humanity and Arkansas Children’s Hospital. But he didn’t rule out consulting work — whether paid or unpaid. He said he’s long had an interest in the concept of “creating great places.” He hopes to continue to do that, he said. But he said he didn’t envision running for another elected office. He said he also paints and plays music and hopes to do more of that.
Villines had a laid-back,unruffled manner. “I never took myself too seriously,” he said. It served him well with the sometimes fractious Quorum Court, a 15-member body that covers a diverse range of city and rural, Democrat and Republican and white and black members. Villines enjoyed great success building a working majority on a number of key issues, including the watershed ordinance, which drew heavy opposition from some entrenched special interests and even a national lobby group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.
Villines’ departure should engender a lot of interest. Former Rep. Barry Hyde of North Little Rock, defeated for re-election last year, is one possible contender. Also former state Rep. Sandra Prater of Jacksonville. Republicans certainly will surface. Former legislator Phil Wyrick of Little Rock mounted one unsuccessful challenge to Villines.
It includes his brag list — long and deserved. It includes his work as one of the Three Amigos — with North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays and Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey — who combined on such major projects as the Verizon Arena and State Convention Center expansion. The Big Dam Bridge, Two Rivers Bridge and Junction Bridge are among the projects in which Villines played a key role. Jail and county office expansions have also been part of his sometimes difficult portfolio.