by Max Brantley
Dead around here. Then I remembered, it's kind of sort of a holiday. When I was a kid in Southwest Louisiana, we always went to school on Good Friday. And, count on it, we ate fish sticks in deference to prevailing religious custom. (Don't jump to any conclusions, Peter Banko. I like fish sticks.)
But, to finish up with a bit of news:followed our reporting on a bill by Rep. Nate Bell of Mena to change the limit on front-yard fence height in the Capitol Zoning District from 40 to 48 inches.
Huh? Mena? Capitol Zoning District?
The zoning district, by law, governs development in areas around the Capitol and Governor's Mansion to preserve their historic character. It functions as a planning commission, more or less.
Fences? The proposed law grows out of a case that went to court over the Commission's denial of a variance for a 48-inch fence requested by Patrick Cowan for his historic house on Scott Street. Cowan lost. Then came the legislation. Cowan got blamed for Bell's bill. So blamed, in fact, that many believe he was defeated in a recent race for president of the Downtown Little Rock Neighborhood Association on account of the legislation. Some people like the existing limitation, apparently, or at least they prefer a process by which the Commission, and neighbors, are in charge of a waiver from the minimum height. Boyd Maher, director of the commission, explains the rule by saying that fences historically were low and ornamental in Little Rock. Maher spoke against the bill when it came up in committee. He said he believed it was preferable to deal with disagreements on existing rules by a review and a change through the usual rulemaking process. If the rule needs changing, he said, it should arise in the neighborhood and be supported there.
Mena? I wouldn't presume to speak for Bell. But I have confirmed that a key force behind the measure is one Gabe Holmstrom, chief of staff to House Speaker Davy Carter. He confirms his involvement, if not direct responsibility. Holmstrom lives in the neighborhood. He's friends with Cowan. He's remodeled apartments on Scott Street and is renovating a house on Louisiana Street as a personal residence. He applied for and received permit for a fence at his house. But he was unhappy to learn he'd need commission approval for the 48-inch fence he wanted to keep his dogs safely penned. Rather than simply apply for a waiver and make his case, he chose instead to attend a commission meeting and lecture the commission about the rule. He said it would discourage people who "looked like" him from making investments in the neighborhood. Some black members of the commission took that badly. I'll buy Holmstrom's explanation that he spoke poorly and meant only to say that overly stringent rules would discourage investment in a neighborhood that needs it. He bought his own house out of foreclosure, he said.
Whatever. Don't start feeling sorry for a high legislative staffer. Swinging a big stick around is efficacious. Squeaky legislative big wheels get greased. Rules can be changed. The Commission voted last night to initiate a review of whether the rule should be changed to a 48-inch limit. Maher said this didn't constitute a recommendation by the staff to make a change. It does give neighbors a public hearing process to see if sentiment favors a change. The final decision will be up to the Commission, which is appointed by various public officials.
Meanwhile, the legislature is keeping the pressure on. An unidentified member of the House has put a hold on the operating appropriation for the Capitol Zoning District Commission. Though approved by the Senate, the appropriations bill was bucked back to Joint Budget Committee, where it rests. But .... a rule change process can't be completed before the legislature is due to end. At least 30 days are required to take public comments, then a commission meeting would have to be scheduled.
Can we agree that a Mena Republican legislator's bill to dictate an eight-inch change in fence heights in a few hundred acres of Little Rock, with the encouragement of the Republican House speaker's chief of staff (a former Democratic Party official), is somewhere short of good government?
* OIL PIPELINE SPILL NEAR MAYFLOWER: Fox 16 provides the photo above of the aftermath of an oil spill from a pipeline break near Mayflower in the Northwood subdivision, which has been evacuated as a precaution against fires. Call U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin. He'll tell you it's silly for people to worry about potential damage from oil pipelines. Early reports from Fox 16 say an Exxon interstate pipeline near Lake Conway ruptured. Traffic was bollixed up near the I-40 exit from Mayflower around 5 p.m.
* NEW METER READERS: You can't be too careful. Entergy has put out a full news release on new contract meter readers, who'll be wearing different uniforms. It's not a scam or crafty burglars casing your neighborhood should you spot these guys checking around the house. Details follow on the jump:
Beginning this weekend, Entergy Arkansas electric meters in metropolitan Little Rock , Jacksonville and Benton will be read by a new contracting company, AccuRead Services. Customers in these areas should expect to see differently marked vehicles and different uniforms on meter readers.
Currently, meter reading in these areas is performed by Baker Services. The new contract with AccuRead begins March 30.
AccuRead meter readers will be driving either gray economy cars or white Toyota Tacoma pickups. On the sides of the vehicles will be both an Entergy logo and an AccuRead logo, which is the words AccuRead in white on a rectangular red field. Meter readers will be wearing blue polo-type shirts with both Entergy and AccuRead logos in white. There is also a uniform jacket that is darker, but bears the same logos as the shirt.
Years ago Entergy began contracting out all its meter reading. When contracts expire, the company explores opportunities to improve service and reduce costs, and such an opportunity led to the decision to hire AccuRead. AccuRead is a subsidiary of Olameter Corp., based in Arlington, Texas.
Except for the change in vehicles and personnel, this transition should be invisible to Entergy Arkansas customers.