Columns » Max Brantley

A real mayor

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Baker Kurrus is trying to brand himself as an agent for change as mayor of Little Rock, but labors under a handicap.

He's a 64-year-old white man.

Frank Scott Jr., the ticket leader in the first round of voting, is undeniably a change of pace. He is only 34 and he's also black.

We've never had a black elected mayor. And the Little Rock Board of Directors does resemble bingo night at the Shady Acres Retirement Home. The current mayor is 69. The 10 directors' ages average 68 and that's only because Ken Richardson, 52, and Lance Hines, 50, knock the average down considerably.

Bike around town with Baker and you won't doubt his physical fitness. He's fit in other ways.

He's run multimillion-dollar businesses, including the Little Rock School District. He's already put an eye to the $265 million city budget and can tell you the city is in trouble, spending more than it is taking in over the long haul. Come a recession and we could be in a world of hurt.

When Kurrus talks accountability, he's believable. He made difficult cuts in the bloated school district. A good place to start in the city is the well-intentioned but poorly monitored millions poured into youth programs through churches and nonprofits.

Kurrus said an important thing last week about the nature of the job. The city has operated under the presumption that when we changed the government form to enhance the mayor's power, we didn't enhance it that much. Much was left to the discretion of the city manager.

Kurrus has read the law. He finds no delegation of, for example, power to hire and fire the police chief to the city manager, who instead is to serve "at the direction of the mayor."

That's an important distinction and Kurrus intends to seize on it, beginning with the selection of a successor to Kenton Buckner as police chief. He'd build some consensus around desires of the public and of the city board, where a six-vote majority is still required for almost everything, including ratification of mayoral appointments.

The city is thirsting for that kind of leadership. And you need not be under 40 to deliver it. Scott, too, is a businessman (banker) and followed up Kurrus' announcement of a brawny mayor's office by one-upping him. He declared he'd lead the transition of Little Rock government to mayor-council. It would require a vote, but even broaching the subject is a gust of change.

Kurrus is more cautious, saying he'd be fine with a change in government if it was the popular will.

He's also said appropriate, but careful, things about the disclosure of abusive police practices in reporting by The Washington Post. He wants them investigated, beginning with the currently preferred internal review. Internal review has failed so far to create a trustworthy culture in the police department. Scott wants an external review agency, a Justice Department investigation even.

Scott also blasted the Fraternal Order of Police for a recent racist Facebook post. Kurrus urged the FOP to take it down (which it did), but stopped short of castigating an organization that wields too much influence. It's a majority white force that shuns Little Rock as home and gets city-provided cars to drive home to white-flight suburbs. Community policing? They are more like occupiers.

I know Kurrus can get tough when the situation demands. He stood up to Johnny Key and Governor Hutchinson's efforts to destroy the Little Rock School District with charter schools. He lost his job for it. I think he'll stand up to the FOP when required. Hell, most of them don't live in Little Rock, anyway.

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