Hendrix College announces the first report from a new Arkansas Policy Program, this one on Little Rock governance.
The consistent result from this analysis is that the shift to an entirely ward election system would advance a system of representation that is more fully reflective of those who have traditionally been on the outside looking in and create more vibrant, competitive, and less expensive elections in the city.
Politics professor Jay Barth (a Little Rock resident who writes a column for the Arkansas Times) developed the public policy study program. The first report is “Governance in Little Rock, Arkansas: At-Large and District Elections and the Impact on Representation.”
It’s an ongoing topic. Little Rock has a 10-member City Board, seven elected from wards and three elected at-large, with a mayor with veto power. The at-large seats — currently held by Joan Adcock, Dean Kumpuris and Gene Fortson — are defended by those who say these representatives are able to step outside parochial concderns for broader interests. But critics say those seats are more expensive to win and tend to be won by white candidates with backing from the city’s power elite in the business community. Though the city is 40 percent black and just under 50 percent black and Latino, the 10 member board has three black members and no Latinos. Power is concentrated in the Hillcrest, Heights and upscale western Little Rock neighborhoods.
Barth and two other faculty members, Kiril Kolev and Brett Hill, and a student, Lora Adams, worked on the new report.
It’s described as the first comprehensive look at Little Rock’s election system.
It provides an overview of the history of the unique structure of the city’s government that blends at-large and ward representation; an analysis of patterns of election of members of the City Board with a focus on geography, race, and gender; an examination of the competitiveness of elections in the city, with an eye to difference between ward and at-large races; and a look at the comparative cost of elections for at-large and ward seats.
Well. There are none so brilliant as those with whom I agree. You’ll find little support for this finding on the majority of the current City Board, who prefer the current structure. It would take a city ballot effort to change the current system. State Rep. John Walker, the civil rights attorney, offered legislation to accomplish this, but it went nowhere, in part because of city opposition. He has threatened a lawsuit over the current scheme of representation.
Moving Little Rock to a ward election system practiced in cities such as North Litttle Rock also could have the result of ending the blended city manager/mayor system with a pure strong mayor system. There are those who think cities with strong mayors operate more effectively, particulary when they have vibrant mayors.
City Director Erma Hendrix, a black representative of Ward 1, called recently for a board discussion of changing to a ward-only election system. She’s asked that it be put on the city board agenda. The idea wasn’t greeted with warm cheers by other directors.
It says a deeper analysis of decision-making would be necessary to evaluate whether the common-good argument for at-large elections outweighs the benefits in ward elections, which are many.
… in contexts of past racial segregation, between-gender inequality and income disparaties, ward elections show many strengths over atlarge systems of governance. Layered on top of these benefits of a ward system are two additional benefits: the relative accessibility for those who might be pushed out of politics because of highstakes
fundraising and the enhanced electoral competitiveness of the races.