In a meeting Tuesday afternoon, the Little Rock Board of Directors discussed two ordinances slated for the agenda of next week’s voting meeting. One ordinance would restructure the board’s current three at-large positions, which are elected citywide, into three “regional positions” that oversee larger “regional districts,” which would overlap the city’s current ward boundaries. The other ordinance would give the mayor more power in hiring and terminating the city manager and city attorney.
Both ordinances refer to the recommendations of the Little Rock Governance Structure Study Group. Rick Campbell, chairman of the study group, began his comments to the board by reminding directors that “you’ve got to separate out the people who currently hold the at-large positions and the people who currently hold the ward positions from our discussion.” Campbell said the study group considered the future of the city of Little Rock “in general,” and tried to strike a balance between the “virtues” of the at-large and ward positions.
“The citizens of Little Rock would get both the benefit of having a ward representative as well as a regional representative that they could contact with regards to city business,” Campbell said. “It’s a compromised position. It’s one that we felt had the benefit of both what we have today and could bring the at-large positions down one level closer to the people living in the wards.”
The Board of Directors would still be comprised of seven ward positions. People who hold regional positions would be required to live in the region they represent, and only people who live in the region would be able to vote for their regional position or director.
Campbell said the study group formed its recommendations in part through conversations held with Little Rock residents at different community forums. Ward 1 director Erma Hendrix said she attended all but one of those community forums, and the turn out at those meetings were “poor.”
“What do we go on? Who do we believe? I saw that there were no persons there in large numbers. Very few people asked questions,” Hendrix said. “Everybody acted like they were afraid to speak up, [and] very few people spoke up. … And I can say that, and that was my reason for going. Because really, the [governance structure study group], even though my daughter was on it, I thought it was a waste of time. Very much a waste of time. You might not hear that from all these other people up here, but I’ve lived long enough to say what I feel. And to say it godly, and pray about it. And nothing is greater than prayer.”
Campbell told Hendrix the study group did its best work and held meetings in each ward, and got input from citizens and experts to form its recommendations. At-large director Joan Adcock asked what the advantages were for a regional director being elected by a smaller group of people than the at-large director races, which are held citywide. Campbell said regional directors would only have to campaign within their region, potentially saving money because they wouldn’t have to cover the entire city.
“And the electors would actually be able to have greater contact with their regional director than they may have today with an at-large director,” Campbell added.
“Why do you think that would be true?” Adcock asked.
“I’m not saying it would necessarily be true, you and all the other at-large directors here … we were not focused on what you do today,” Campbell said. “We were not thinking about you, or the other at-large directors. What we were thinking about [was] people in the future. We were surmising that this might bring people living in different areas of the city, different regions of the city, in closer contact with the city board than exists today. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know.”
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. then explained to directors that if the board passes this ordinance, it would be added to the ballot of the general election on Nov. 3 for approval by city residents.
“[City Attorney Tom Carpenter] has told us time and time again that we cannot vote on things that people in the future [have] to do, boards in the future have to do,” Adcock said. “What we’ve got on this ballot would not take effect until 2025, is that correct?”
Campbell explained that if Little Rock voters pass it, then the first regional positions would not be elected until the 2024 election, and the first regional director would not begin a term on the board until January 1, 2025. Antwan Phillips, a Little Rock attorney and co-host of the Arkansas Times podcast “Rock the Culture,” has already announced his formation of an “exploratory campaign” for an at-large position on the board.
Ward 2 director Ken Richardson also shared his concerns about the proposed ordinance, saying that if a ward director and a regional director don’t get along, “nothing’s going to happen in that ward, or that region.”
“It’s almost similar to what we have right now. Say I have an at-large director who will aggressively work against me, trying to turn my constituents [against] me in my ward, and that director is an at-large director,” Richardson said. “You can have opportunities for conflict in your ward when you have a particular colleague that may not appreciate your work or may not appreciate the fact that you haven’t done what he or she wanted you to do.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Campbell said, laughing. He said he would “assume” that a regional director would work with their fellow directors and the mayor in the “best interest of the city of Little Rock.”
Hendrix then asked City Attorney Tom Carpenter if the elimination of the at-large positions entirely could be put on the 2020 ballot through a petition, regardless of whether the board passes the ordinance. Carpenter said that if the board passes the ordinance, it would block a similar issue from being put on the ballot at the same time. If the board defeats the ordinance, then the petition process would be possible.
“Then that’s what we intend to do,” Hendrix replied.
Ward 6 director Doris Wright began her comments by telling Campbell, “this is confusing.”
“I’ve listened to this, I’ve read this, and to me, this is just gonna cause confusion,” Wright said. “If you had come back with a recommendation [of], ‘Let’s just make everybody a ward director and make the wards smaller,’ that would have made a whole lot more sense. … To me, you’re just going to confuse people. I attended the ward 6 [community] meeting, and there weren’t even 10 people in that room. … I didn’t hear any discussion about this from the few people that were there, and I have not been approached by any of my constituents [who’ve said] that this is an issue for them. So to me, this is just adding confusion.”
The board is also considering an ordinance that would allow the mayor to hire or terminate the city manager, which are powers the mayor currently has, but with the additional provision that the mayor’s decision to hire or terminate the city manager is final unless the board overrides that decision by a two-thirds vote. Currently, the mayor’s decision to hire or terminate the city manager is subject to approval of the board through a majority vote. The ordinance would also allow the mayor to conduct the annual review of the city manager.
The process for appointing the city attorney would not change; the mayor’s selection for city attorney would still require a majority of board’s approval. Campbell said the annual review of the city attorney would be conducted by the mayor and the vice mayor because the city attorney does not serve at the direction of the mayor, but rather both the mayor and the city board. The change proposed in the ordinance makes the mayor’s decision to hire or terminate the city attorney final, unless the board overrides this by a two-thirds vote.
Campbell said the study group’s reasoning behind these recommendations is to help clear up confusion among Little Rock citizens about who exactly is in charge at City Hall.
“It was clear that people in Little Rock are confused about who’s really in charge of the administration of the city of Little Rock,” Campbell said. “They want an accountable person, one person … that they can go to, with regard to the administration of the city of Little Rock. And we felt, based on everything that we heard, that this formal recognition of the mayor’s authority to hire and terminate the city manager would dissipate that confusion that may exist from the people in Little Rock. … With this particular recommendation, were it to be adopted, then the people would know they should go to the mayor. … But the bottom line is, it does give the people one person they can look to from an accountability standpoint.”
In his closing comments to the board about these two ordinances, Scott reminded directors that the governance structure study group was created by the board in December 2018 before Scott took office.
“A group of volunteers that this board appointed provided these recommendations,” Scott said. “The next step is for this board to decide: Do they want to listen to the folks that they appointed?”
Scott also told directors that his desire to restructure the at-large positions is not a personal one.
“Here’s the thing: this board asked for this,” Scott continued. “Now we have to respond by our votes. What I can share with you — because I was one of the five [mayoral candidates] that campaigned on moving away from at-large city directors — [is that it] has nothing to do with the personalities. I care deeply, deeply, for the at-large city directors who sit on this board. But it’s more than just a person. It has nothing to do with personalities.”
Scott ended his comments by saying that if the recommendations of the study group fail, the next alternative for his administration is “to consider what we campaigned on.”
“I gave campaign promises,” Scott said. “One thing I learned a long time ago, you keep your promises or die trying. So there will be a next step if certain things are failed. Plain and simple.”