It's been just over half a century since Little Rock residents voted to strip their mayor of virtually all but symbolic power. Tuesday, they'll decide whether to give some of it back — with a heftily beefed-up paycheck to boot.
Supporters say it's crucial to Little Rock's future to have one person who's politically accountable for crafting and pursuing a vision for the city, and are trying to focus the discussion on the structure of municipal government, not on Mayor Mark Stodola himself. But opponents worry that the interests of Little Rock's less affluent citizens would get even less attention if any power was siphoned from ward representatives on the city's Board of Directors. They're also concerned that the Aug. 14 special election is coming too quickly after the start of Stodola's administration. Some have also said they believe the changes are an effort to oust or diminish City Manager Bruce Moore — a charge that Stodola and every other board member who supports the changes has publicly denied.
There are two separate questions on Tuesday's ballot. Each can be approved individually.
The first would give the mayor the authority to veto any city board vote. (Currently, his vote carries the same amount of weight as the 10 directors.) The board would be able to override the veto with a two-thirds majority.
The second question would give the mayor a list of new powers:
• The authority to hire and fire the city manager and city attorney — with the board's approval. The board would also still conduct annual evaluations of the city manager and city attorney. Currently, the board can hire and fire those positions by a majority vote.
• The ability to fill vacancies on city boards and commissions — again with the board's approval, and after consulting with the respective ward representative and at-large city directors.
• The responsibility of preparing the city's budget with the city manager. The city manager would still administer the budget.
• Oversight of the city manager. According to the ballot language, the city manager would perform his duties under state law “at the direction of the mayor.”
Under state law, giving the mayor these additional duties and powers converts the position to full-time, and requires a salary and benefit package pegged to that of the highest-ranking municipal employee — in this case, Moore, who earns $160,000 per year.
In practical terms, the mayor would still not have the power to make any major decisions unilaterally. But he would have more influence over setting the agenda for the city — and, Stodola said, would be able to act and react more quickly to take advantage of development opportunities for the city.
Although the Board of Directors voted just two months ago to hold the special election on the issue of expanded mayoral powers, the idea has been developing for well over a decade.
Voters over the years have rejected a variety of proposals to change the way both the mayor and the board of directors are elected. They approved the current system — a directly elected but essentially powerless part-time mayor, seven directors elected from wards, three directors elected city-wide — in 1993, following the recommendations of a community-based planning group called Future-Little Rock.
Not quite a decade later, a similar group called Vision Little Rock recommended a host of proposed changes for the city, including the move to a full-time mayor with veto power. Former mayor Jim Dailey, among others, supported the change, but city residents were underwhelmed, and the issues never made it to the ballot.
The idea resurfaced in the 2006 municipal election. All four candidates for mayor supported moving to a full-time, more-powerful position and a citizens' group calling itself the Committee for Accountability and Equal Representation began a petition drive to get those changes plus the elimination of at-large city directors on the ballot. The state legislature even looked at making changes in state law during the 2007 session.
When Stodola proposed in March that the board put the mayoral-powers changes on the ballot, the backers of the petition drive “shifted into neutral,” as organizer Craig Williams said, and have since decided to support the ballot initiative as it is — although Williams said they still want to get rid of the at-large positions in the future.
The changes wouldn't convert Little Rock's government wholesale into a standard mayor-council form like North Little Rock's (and most other Arkansas cities'), where the mayor would be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the city. It would create a hybrid system — increasingly common in larger cities around the country — where the city manager would still be the chief administrator, but the mayor would wield more political power and leadership and spend more time communicating directly with city residents.
“A mayor who's out there getting that kind of information from people has the ability to craft a vision,” Stodola said. “You can't do it if you're running the day-to-day operations of the city.”
Some opponents of the changes said at a community meeting in late July that they believed supporters wanted to get rid of Moore, but Stodola and the directors who voted for the special election have all said that's not true. They said there was a distinct difference between Moore's job and what they envision a full-time mayor would do.
“I am a very big supporter of Bruce Moore,” said Director Michael Keck, who represents Ward 5 in West Little Rock. “He's one of the best in the country. I don't want anyone to get the impression we're moving forward on this because of any issues with Bruce.”
The board actually voted late last year to give Moore an $11,000 pay raise. They also already have the authority under the current system to fire him.
“If we wanted to get rid of Bruce Moore we wouldn't have to go through all this,” Ward 6 Director Doris Wright said.
But at least one board member, at-large Director Joan Adcock, said she has a “real concern” about knowing who's responsible for what if the city had both a full-time mayor and a city manager.
Stodola, however, said that, in reality, being mayor is already a full-time job. Dailey, who didn't need a day job to support himself, was known for spending all his time at City Hall.
The move to a full-time mayor with a six-figure salary would also likely affect the variety of people who would run for the position, Stodola said. The part-time structure limits candidates, realistically, to people who have other significant sources of income and/or jobs that allow them to work drastically reduced hours for four years.
“You've got to ask yourself — does that have any basis to attract the kind of leadership we want for our city and its future?” Stodola said. “A salary commensurate with the responsibility [of being mayor] will create plenty of people who want the job.”
As for how the change would affect him, Stodola said he would actually fare worse financially if he quit practicing law to be a full-time mayor.
As it stands, though, Stodola said he's not practicing as much law as he'd planned anyway. His strategy going in was to spend his mornings working at his law practice and his afternoons in the mayor's office, but his appointment book no longer makes any distinction. It's covered with meetings with everyone from the Hospitality Association to the Corps of Engineers to Wildwood to the federal Housing and Urban Development department. Whether he has any power or not, he's clearly the person who springs to many people's minds when they picture the head of Little Rock city government.
But Little Rock's current system makes it difficult to translate any of what he gleans from those meetings into policy or action, Stodola said. Board member Stacy Hurst, who supports the move to a full-time, more powerful mayor, agreed.
“With 11 people on the board, and everyone having an equal vote and everyone having their own agenda — and they are all noble agendas — it is difficult to move forward on any one thing,” she said.
Both Stodola and Hurst compared Little Rock's relatively clunky system with North Little Rock's, where city leaders quickly put together a special election two years ago to pass a sales tax to build Dickey-Stephens Park and lure the Arkansas Travelers away from their historic home on the south side of the river.
The future of Ray Winder Field and War Memorial Park as a whole are still bogged down in a very slow-moving process of committees and subcommittees. So is a proposed ordinance addressing vicious dogs.
“Some of the things do take time,” Stodola said. “But there are some things that can be done” more quickly.
Stodola said a full-time mayor with budgeting authority would better be able to set priorities for city services, like providing affordable housing and more police presence in high-crime areas.
But the bulk of organized opposition to the change has come from just those areas that would benefit from what Stodola describes.
The Board of Directors voted 7-4 on June 12 to hold the special election. Directors from Wards 1, 2 and 7 — Erma Hendrix, Ken Richardson and B. J. Wyrick, representing east, south and southwest Little Rock — voted against the proposals, along with Adcock, who lives in and is a strong advocate for southwest Little Rock.
Residents in those areas, Ward 2 Director Richardson said, are more concerned with day-to-day access to city services than with whether a part-time mayor is too restricted to capitalize on economic development opportunities.
“I'm still trying to conceptualize how giving the mayor these sorts of broad powers would make it easier to address these issues,” he said. “It may add another level of bureaucracy.”
Richardson said he also thinks the board moved too fast, voting to hold a special election less than a year after Stodola and new board members took their seats.
“Theoretically it may be a good direction for us to move in,” Richardson said. “I think we're just moving a little too swiftly on it.”
Board members decided early this year to revisit the recommendations from Vision Little Rock, he said — which also included proposals on improving public safety and other issues. The board should have looked at those too, Richardson said.
“When I campaigned last fall, the number one concern was public safety. It wasn't the form of government, it was public safety.”
Adcock said voting in June to have a special election in August didn't allow enough time to educate residents on the proposed changes. When she goes to neighborhood meetings and brings up the election, “half the people there know absolutely nothing about what I'm talking about,” she said. “We have a large segment of our population that doesn't read the paper or keep up with the TV news. They're busy with their families.”
She said she's also against spending so much money on a full-time mayoral salary when there are other needs going unmet because of lack of funds.
“Every department we look at has such needs,” she said.
Nor does she see the current system as preventing the mayor from pursuing his priorities for the city.
“I always thought of [Dailey] as a strong mayor,” Adock said. “I can't imagine anything he ever asked us to support that we didn't. There were a couple of times in 15 years he might have been in opposition to the board, but most of the time we worked it out.”
Two advocacy groups emerged in July — one in support and one opposed to the changes.
The Rev. Benny Johnson, founder of Stop the Violence, is part of the opposition group.
“I think everything's running fine,” he said, explaining why he's against changing the form of government. “If nothing's broke, don't fix it. … Instead of paying two people all this big money, we could use that money for more police.”
Two Votes for Leadership, the group that formed to support the changes, includes former mayors Dailey and Sharon Priest, now executive director of the Downtown Partnership; civic activist and UALR professor Jim Lynch; and Kevin Dedner, a past candidate for an at-large board of directors position and one of the leaders of last winter's petition drive. Their effort has money and expertise behind it that the opposition does not: a budget of up to $200,000 and a professional political marketing firm to craft and disseminate its message.
Director Wright, whose ward includes south-central Little Rock, is also part of the group. She said she supports giving the mayor more power specifically because she wants basic city services for her ward without having to complain to get them.
“It comes down to practicality for me,” she said.
Donna Massey, an ACORN leader, said she's encountered a lot of confusion and misunderstanding in the community about why Stodola and the board majority want to increase the mayor's power. “They're just used to the mayor being a ribbon-cutting kind of guy, a ceremonial figure,” Massey said. “They fear if he has the power to veto he'll do some unfair things, like the president has. … People just see this as him having the opportunity to run amok.”
ACORN was part of the petition drive to increase the mayor's power and abolish at-large directors, but the organization did not take an official position on the two ballot issues. Massey said she supports giving the mayor more authority — “Why pay him to be just a figurehead?” — but that going to an all-ward board of directors is a higher priority.
“If we had 10 ward positions we would have more equal and fair representation,” she said.
Dedner agreed, but said he'd rather support incremental change now than hold out for the entire package of reforms the petition drive aimed for.
“This is something that's immediately on the ballot,” he said. “We might not have the opportunity again to make any change for seven to 10 years.”