NEW VICE MAYOR OF LITTLE ROCK: B.J. Wyrick was elected as the city's new vice mayor. BRIAN CHILSON
BRIAN CHILSON
‘I’M MORE DRIVEN THIS YEAR:’ Vice Mayor B.J. Wyrick hopes to finish jobs and further change as city director of Ward 7 and vice mayor of Little Rock.

Vice Mayor Brenda “B.J.” Wyrick has served on the Little Rock Board of Directors for almost 25 years, including a previous stint as vice mayor from 2000-2001. As city director of Southwest Little Rock’s Ward 7, Wyrick represents neighborhoods south of Colonel Glenn Road to County Line Road and west of Chicot Road, as well as the Otter Creek area. Wyrick said she’s focused on improving infrastructure in the area, as well as increasing access to city services in the ward, which now houses a community center, two alert centers, fire stations and a police substation. Now in her second term as vice mayor, Wyrick says wants to do more work with other parts of the city in addition to her advocacy for Ward 7.

Wyrick, 69, retired in 2017 from her job as a customer account representative for the Arkansas Department of Information Systems. She said her retirement has allowed her to dedicate more time to her duties as vice mayor.

“I was vice mayor a number of years ago … and I was working, and I was trying to balance Ward 7 and [being] vice mayor, and I really did not get to spread around to other parts of the city and work with other parts of the city,” Wyrick said. “I have the time now, and so that’s the reason why I wanted to do it again.”

Wyrick was first elected in 1994, shortly after Little Rock switched its form of government from an all at-large board of directors to its current structure with seven ward positions, three at-large directors and a directly elected mayor. Wyrick said that after this change, she and other residents of Ward 7 were discussing the need for a ward representative to advocate for the area when someone suggested she run.

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“I said, ‘No, I’m not a politician. I just want to take care of my kids and water my ferns. I’m not really the political kind,’ ” Wyrick said. But her husband Phil Wyrick, a former state senator and state representative, also urged her to run, and she decided to do it.

Since then, Wyrick has been opposed twice in her re-election bids for Ward 7 city director, in 2010 and 2018. City directors are elected to four-year terms.

“I just try to work and get things done; I don’t really focus on where I’ve been,” Wyrick said. “In the campaign [for re-election in 2018], I started thinking, ‘Well, what have I really done for this area? Why would they support me again?’ ”

One of the improvements to Ward 7 infrastructure that Wyrick is proud of is the construction of three overpasses to allow residents access over the Union Pacific railroad tracks, as well as better access to city services like police and fire.

“There’s like 75 trains a day that isolate us from public safety, from the police department, from the fire department, [from] EMS,” Wyrick said. “So we have two [overpasses] now, and the third one is under construction. There’s been a lot of infrastructure things that have happened, and there’s still more.”

Wyrick said several areas in the ward need sidewalks, and the city also needs to address open ditches and drainage issues in the area.

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Ward 7 has a population that’s about 49 percent black and 50 percent white, Wyrick said. The area is also home to a large Latino community, the size of which Wyrick said might not be accurately reflected in survey or census information. The ward has been “lacking,” Wyrick said, in such amenities as shopping and restaurants, but the recent additions of the Outlets at Little Rock, the Bass Pro Shop and Saltgrass Steak House have helped “bring people from out of [the ward] into it.” She also cited improvements to the Pulaski Technical College campus and the creation of new neighborhood associations as making the ward more appealing to new residents.

Neighborhood associations have helped draw attention to issues in the ward. Wyrick wants them to be more proactive about celebrating the area’s successes, too.

“[The neighborhood associations] were very active to start off with, but through time, we found it’s hard to keep them interested unless there’s a good thing or a bad thing going on,” Wyrick said. “If there’s a bad thing going on, they’ll be breaking the door down to come to the meetings. Sometimes, if there’s a good thing, it’ll inspire more people to come out.”

In hopes of creating one such “good thing,” Wyrick helped arrange a Rock the Block event on March 30 with Habitat For Humanity in the Chicot neighborhood off of Baseline Road. The all-day event involved volunteers and neighborhood residents conducting repairs, landscaping, clean-up and beautification efforts in the area.

Wyrick said she hoped the Rock the Block event would help “inspire” the area to grow, saying the neighborhood had experienced blight from several homes that “should be on a demolition list,” and if torn down, the vacant space would allow for more new homes. She wants to improve housing in the entire ward by acquiring property through the city’s Land Bank, using funds distributed by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission through the Community Development Block Grant program or through more projects with Habitat For Humanity. Better housing and the new Southwest High School, which is set to open to students in August 2020, should encourage new families with children to move to the Chicot Road neighborhood.

Restoring local control to the Little Rock School District is also a priority for Wyrick, who was chosen to serve on the Civic Advisory Committee — formed by state legislators to determine how to improve the school district — after the state’s takeover of the district in 2015.

“Not having a school board, having it be under state control, how did we get worse?” Wyrick asked.

McClellan High School was one of the first schools chosen to be closed after the takeover, a move Wyrick said could have been prevented.

“[The committee] had this huge formula to figure out who to close and who not to close and what testing they were looking at,” Wyrick said. “They [chose to close] McClellan, but … by the time we were in that meeting, [McClellan] had already pulled [its] rating up, so they wouldn’t have been on the failure list if we’d waited, but it was already closed. … So, then we started looking at the numbers, and the numbers did not make sense to me. Why would you do that? There seemed to be some confusion about what data was to be used to develop this criteria. We had six schools to start out with that were failing, and now it’s [22 schools] that are failing.”

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Wyrick said the district “functions better” with a locally elected school board.

“[A local board] has their finger on the superintendent. He reports to them,” Wyrick said. “They have the ability to listen to teachers, parents, kids. Just like me, I can get a feel of things going wrong by the number of complaints that I get. If there’s a breakdown — for instance, [when] all of Alexander Road didn’t get their garbage picked up — you kind of get a feel for where your issues are if you are closer to the teachers and the parents.”

Wyrick said she worries about the future of the district’s families as well as its teachers and administrators.

“We in Southwest have built our neighborhoods and our efforts around neighborhood schools,” Wyrick said. “I mean, that’s been our focus. It’s the fabric of our community. I think we need to go back [to local control] because we’ve gotten worse. But I think the principals and the teachers, they don’t really know what their future is. They don’t really have a say so, it’s been proven time and time again.”

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Wyrick faced opposition for her seat on the board for the first time in 2010. She said her opponent, Bruce Tate, criticized her for being “too old” for the job — a first in her political career.

“I was 10 years younger then, and I bet you I could work circles around the guy that was running,” Wyrick said, laughing. “He has people mow his yard, and I mow my own yard. I’m just messing with you, but that’s true, I do.”

Wyrick agrees that if one looks at the board as a whole, “we look like a bunch of old folks.” But she said that age, in this case, is mostly just a number.

“One of the interesting things that I have seen [is] people try to put us in the category of ‘The Board,’” Wyrick said. “‘The Board’ is old. ‘The Board’ is all white. ‘The Board’ needs more representation. … So collectively, they call us ‘The Board,’ but when they talk to us individually, they’re happy with us. I mean, I’ve been re-elected how many times? I know there are people out there that probably have an ambition to do this kind of work, but if that’s what they want to do and they want to be elected, then they have to be involved in the community, and they have to build those relationships.”

“It’s not about how much money you raise, because you can run a good race on a little amount of money,” Wyrick added. “It’s all about the work that you do. Where you put your efforts, your volunteerism, those sorts of things. So, maybe we are old. But I can tell you that everybody I know on the board is very conscientious about their neighborhoods, what their constituents want, and collectively, we are the board. We are old. But I don’t think our community sees us that way individually, otherwise they wouldn’t have elected us.”

The board has also received criticism from Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who spoke frequently about a lack of “transparency” at City Hall during his campaign and in his inauguration speech. Wyrick said this was also a comment her opponents made about her in the 2018 election, and it confused her.

“I’m thinking, I’m as transparent as I can possibly be,” Wyrick said. “I attend neighborhood meetings, I’m on TV, I answer phone calls, I do all that.”

But after resisting signing up for Facebook for many years, Wyrick said she realized the social media site is a “good tool to provide information to the citizens.”

Scott has also frequently emphasized his desire to eliminate or restructure the at-large positions on the board; the transformation and government reform subcommittee on his transition team focused solely on options for changing the board’s structure. Wyrick said she’s “happy” with the ward structure as is and believes it’s an “effective balance.” Her “second preference” would be all ward-elected directors because “you still would get a pretty good balance of representation.”

Wyrick also said an adjustment to the board’s structure isn’t a need she hears expressed by her constituents.

“[My constituents] are happy with me and Joan [Adcock] out in Southwest working,” Wyrick said. “And Ken [Richardson]’s out in Southwest, so when you think about it, if there’s an issue in Southwest, there’s three votes right there that are for or against anything. So I think it’s worked in Southwest Little Rock’s favor. But, nobody has got a burning desire to change that.”

What Wyrick said she does hear from residents is confusion about “why we have [both] a strong mayor and [City Manager] Bruce Moore.”

“I [told them] that we’ve had a couple mayors that we thought were going to be more involved in city government, and they [weren’t]. As a result, Bruce picked it up,” Wyrick said. “Bruce has been the lead on all these departments. He’s been the lead on figuring out the budget. He’s been the lead on the infrastructure, all that stuff. He had to do that in order to keep the city afloat because we didn’t have mayors that took care of that stuff.

“I’m not saying anything about getting rid of the city manager,” Wyrick added. “I’m just saying that people don’t understand why we’ve got a strong mayor and a city manager, which we really didn’t have a strong mayor [before].”

Wyrik said she believes Scott brings a “fresh,” energetic presence to the board, which she said may help with a perception that the board’s collective age has rendered it out of touch. She added that she has “no doubt” Scott will be able to handle the additional responsibilities he’s taken on in pursuit of fulfilling his campaign promise to be a “strong mayor,” including his oversight of six city departments — finance, fire, human resources, planning, police and public works — that previously reported to the city manager.

Though Wyrick said her position as vice mayor is “basically just a title,” she looks forward to serving folks in other parts of the city outside of Ward 7, including through her work with the Arkansas Homeless Coalition and Rock Region Metro. But her primary focus will remain on solving problems and finishing projects in Southwest Little Rock.

“I’m more driven this year, I think,” Wyrick said. “I’m still elected ward representative for Ward 7. I’m still doing what I need to do. I’ll still be fighting and focusing and trying to make a difference out there.”