In a meeting Tuesday evening, the Little Rock Board of Directors voted to withdraw an ordinance that would restructure the board’s at-large positions, which are elected citywide, into “regional directors,” which would be elected only by residents who live within those regional districts. Directors also withdrew an ordinance that would allow the mayor to hire and terminate the city manager with the provision that the mayor’s decision is final unless the board overrides that decision by a two-thirds vote.
The ordinances were withdrawn by two modifications to the meeting’s agenda, both of which received a unanimous vote of approval from the board. Both ordinances came from recommendations made by the Little Rock Governance Structure Study Group, which the board established in December 2018 to study the best form of government for the city.
Mayor Frank Scott Jr. did not initially offer an explanation as to the withdrawal of the ordinances, but when speaking to reporters after the meeting adjourned, he said they were withdrawn at a “staff level” and not at the request of any specific city director. He said the board instead wanted to focus its efforts on the 2020 “Lift Little Rock” campaign that the mayor revealed at his state of the city speech in January, which includes a penny sales tax initiative to support better “quality of life and place” through a dedicated source of funding for various improvements to city facilities, including the Little Rock Zoo and War Memorial and Hindman golf courses.
“I think the board wanted to focus, [in] 2020 … [on] this Lift Little Rock campaign, so I think that was more of the rationale of why the board members voted to remove it, so we can all cohesively focus on the Lift Little Rock quality of life and place penny sales tax,” Scott said. “If anyone’s wanting to know, I think that’s really the priority, versus dealing with some contention at this point in time, when we really need to be focusing on this penny sales tax. We’re all on one accord on focusing on this penny sales tax. We can deal with form of government at a later date.”
At the close of discussion about these two ordinances at last week’s agenda meeting, Scott said one of his campaign promises was to restructure the at-large positions on the board, and if the ordinances failed, his administration’s next step would be to “consider what we campaigned on.” On Tuesday, Scott said this restructuring is something he will continue to pursue. When asked when it might appear on the agenda again, Scott said, “I’ve got three years to keep my campaign promises.”
“And I will keep my promises, or die trying,” Scott said, repeating a sentiment he shared at last week’s meeting.
After the meeting, Vice Mayor B.J. Wyrick said that as far as she knew, Scott pulled the two ordinances from the agenda. She said she heard from other board members that the ordinances had been pulled before the start of the meeting.
During the citizen communication portion of the meeting, Rohn Muse, an active community member, shared his concerns about the city’s four opportunity zones, which provide tax incentives for private investment in low-income areas. The zones were decided by Governor Hutchinson in 2018. During the month of February, members of the city’s Opportunity Zone task force are hosting community meetings to get citizen input on what sort of investment they would like to see in the four zones.
Muse said he attended the first meeting on Feb. 6, held at Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library, which he said was “encouraging and worrisome at the same time.” Attendees were divided into groups and told to make lists of the kind of investments they’d like to see in the zones.
“We were told that the opportunity zone is basically for, and I’m going to paraphrase, for the wealthy folks who have tax burdens and they want to get tax relief by investing their monies in the opportunity zones,” Muse said. “And we were told that they would not necessarily be interested in making money, and that we would not know if a corporation was formed for taking advantage of this opportunity. … It’s scary in a way, because what’s to prevent people from forming these corporations, buying houses from people who are wanting to sell them, and then doing nothing with them? To leave them to deteriorate?”
Muse then said he felt the city needed to put “extra strength” into creating a warranty of habitability first — as Arkansas is the only state in the nation does not have one — that would hold individuals and investors “to a standard that they would have to bring these structures up to habitable condition.”
Ward 2 director Ken Richardson said there is a “general feeling in the community” that the community meetings hosted by the Opportunity Zone task force are “symbolic or perfunctory” and are “designed to show or say that we had some community input, when in fact, the plan has already been made, the decisions have already been made, new market tax credits have already been identified.”
Scott responded by reiterating that the opportunity zones came down from the federal government and that the governor decided where the zones are located, but he said his administration has made an effort to combat potential gentrification or displacement as a result of investment in the zones.
“One of the things that this administration did, because we do understand that it is a federal driven policy, we have advocated for an anti-displacement policy to ensure that those very same things that you’re speaking to [do] not happen,” Scott said. “I can assure you, there is no plan that comes from this office, and no plan that comes from this city, that would do anything that would disenfranchise our brothers and sisters in low-income communities.”
Scott then said there is no advance “plan” for the zones, and said one of the things the city can’t control, in any situation, is “who utilizes their money and where they do it.”
Directors also approved an ordinance allowing Our House — a nonprofit resource center, homeless shelter and childcare center for unsheltered individuals and families — to rezone its campus at 302 East Roosevelt Roard into a Planned Office Development, in turn allowing the nonprofit to expand its facilities by constructing four new buildings.
In the ordinance’s write-up, Our House said the expansion will include a new 8,000-square-foot “family house” to provide transitional housing for 14 families; a 16,884-square-foot expansion to the existing children’s center facility and family support center, with offices for Our House staff and room to meet with clients; an addition to an existing building to provide more office space and living quarters for residents; a new maintenance building; and the modification of an existing parking lot into a new entrance to the campus.