by Max Brantley
Some 26 people have applied to sit on Little Rock's land bank commission, the Democrat-Gazette reported today.
Surprise! As I mentioned weeks ago, former Municipal Judge Bill Watt is among them. Someone quoted him at a recent neighborhood meeting as talking in his customary expansive way about how the program was going to work, as if he were already in charge.
I asked Mayor Mark Stodola about this and he took umbrage at my suggestion that some sort of fix was in for Watt. He said he'd spoken briefly to Watt once and, if I recall correctly, said that City Director Joan Adcock had mentioned Watt's interest.
Watt's involvement is cause for at least a moment's careful consideration. He had to give up his job as municipal judge because he abused his power. He also came a cropper because of Whitewater-era testimony about suspect dealings -- in real estate -- with the felony embezzler David Hale. Should he be rewarded for his past public misconduct by the city with a seat on what some people think will be a scarily powerful commission with the ability to take property (the city will actually do the condemning)? Commissioners will be able to pick and choose among builders and developers for the right (at advantageous land acquisition costs) to redevelop property. Watt is a real estate broker, by the way.
The applicants include a number of people in the real estate and building business. They will argue -- as they do at every level of government -- that their special expertise is needed for sound operation of a real estate and building enterprise. We've seen the results of that philosophy at work over decades of, for example, special interest-influenced planning and board of adjustment decisions that have produced the ill-planned sprawl in parts of western Little Rock.
This commission desperately needs to be most heavily influenced by civic-minded people who believe in redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods and who won't be immediately suspected of holding their own or friends' business interests paramount. (I'm not ascribing those motives to any of the applicants, only noting that the potential for conflict is great.) The applicants, for the record:
Bill Watt, Keith Wingfield, Stephen Craig, William H. Robinson III, Richard Stephens, Amin Amarshi, Susan Chan, Mike Robinson, Chris Porter, Pamela Abrams, Drew Basham, Jordan Beard, Garry Bettis Jr., Grace Blagdon, James Harkins, Judy F. Green, Fred J. Gray, Ward 1 City Director Erma Hendrix, Jeff Hildebrand, Gabe Holmstrom, Beverly Ann Hood Jones, Lance Levi, Hillis Schild, Walter Skelton, Willis Smith and Michael White.