The Little Rock Governance Structure Study Group sent to Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and city board members late Friday its report on changing the form of Little Rock city government.
The key aspects in my quick review are enhanced powers for the mayor — particularly in ability to hire and fire the city manager and city attorney — and a change in makeup of the city board, now 10 members with seven elected from wards and three at-large.
The study group, at work for seven months and chaired by lawyer Rick Campbell, recommended an eight-member board, with six elected from wards (not at large as I erroneously wrote originally) and two “regional” members. This, when fully implemented, would give poorer parts of town a slightly better shot at winning seats covering more than a single ward. When fully implemented, regional directors would have to live in the region and only voters in the region would vote on the seats.
At-large seats are voted citywide and are typically more expensive races, a factor that favors establishment candidates. (Opinion: I’d prefer a pure city council form, such as North Little Rock and many other cities use, with all ward elections )
The report said that if the city Board preferred to keep the current 10 members, plus mayor, that it would recommend making the three at-large seats “regional” seats.
The group also recommended that city board members be required to win 40 percent of the vote to be elected, with a runoff if no candidate receives that amount in a first election There is no threshold for city directors now, though there is a 40 percent threshold for the mayor’s seat. The report said changing the requirement for directors would promote “consistency and clarity.” The group rejected the idea of requiring a majority vote for all positions because it would likely increase the number of runoffs required.
The report recommended that, while the mayor could hire and fire the city manager and city attorney, the city board could override firings with a two-thirds vote.
The group also recommended creating a citizen education program to help people participate in government; an orientation program for city board members, and an annual board retreat. About the last, the report said it should include “social, informational and planning discussions” that are “memorialized in writing” and used in future decisions.
The report discusses at lengths the pros and cons of at-large seats on the board and cites a study that illustrated the value of ward elections in bringing outsiders to the table. It also notes the changing demographics of the city, which could reach “majority-minority” status following the 2020 Census.
A 2019 state law allowed cities with a city manager form of government to alter board makeup to include regional seats. It was introduced with Little Rock in mind.
The report said the consensus was that moving to regional seats would preserve some of the advantages of at-large representation (a broader view of city issues, for instance) but increase “layers of representation” and promote geographic diversity. A change to regional directors elected only by voters in the region can’t fully take place without a city vote first. The study group rercommended the city board move quickly to establish the regional districts with a residency requirement and then put the issue of regional, rather than citywide, voting on these seats to a vote in November 2020.
The group said it believed reducing the number of wards would encourage a broader view and attention to more diverse interests by city directors. It would reduce factionalism, the report said.
The report said a majority of the group favored this approach, but didn’t break down how the 11-member group split specifically.
In endorsing broader powers for the mayor over two key officials, the group recommended only a majority vote be necessary to overturn a mayor’s pick for city attorney but two-thirds to override a firing. The vote would be two-thirds of the city board to overturn the hiring or override the firing of a city manager.
The report says the city board by ordinance may reduce its size and it may also create regional districts in which candidates must live by ordinance. But a vote to allow voting on those seats only by residents of the district would require voter approval. The report suggests moving ahead on the first steps by ordinance now and putting the question on regional voting on the 2020 election ballot.
The expansion of mayoral powers can be done by a two-thirds board vote, but it also may be referred to voters.