The Little Rock Board of Directors faces an interesting decision Sept. 19.
It will review 17 applications for the at-large board seat vacated by Barbara Graves, who’s running for mayor, and pick someone to serve the two years remaining in her term. It’s a choice appointment because the person chosen may run for the job in 2008. In many elective offices in Arkansas, persons appointed to vacancies may not run to succeed themselves.
This is an important seat because it is a balance-of-power seat. The city board has 11 members counting the mayor. He counts as a director because his mayoral power is mainly ceremonial. He has no more structural power than any other director.
When city political brokers years ago granted city voters some limited zone representation, the retention of three at-large seats put a critical governor on representative democracy. It essentially gave the business establishment the hammer over issues that tended to divide along class and racial lines. Over the years, the higher-income zone representatives have often formed a majority alliance with at-large directors. Often, the board’s three black members are in lonely opposition. This is not invariably true, of course. For one thing, Joan Adcock, an at-large director, is unpredictable, not to mention a vigorous advocate for the Southwest neighborhood from which she comes.
The at-large seats tend to represent establishment views for the simple reason that they are elected citywide. It costs more money to run for an at-large seat. Grassroots candidates can be swamped by establishment money in at-large races.
Simple arithmetic dictates a break from business as usual. The city has a 40.4 percent black population according to the most recent Census data and it could be higher today. There are small but measurable percentages of Latinos and Asians. A representative government should include at least one person of color among the three at-large board seats and at least four among the 11 members overall. A minority appointment in this instance is the right thing to do, particularly in a city that’s lately begun touting its diversity.
Geography is a factor as well. A vast swath of the original city of Little Rock, from its eastern boundary to University Avenue south of Markham Street, counts only two zone representatives on the board. The Heights and western Little Rock wield a disproportionate amount of power (and are home to all four candidates for mayor this year).
Graves has been a hard-working, well-informed city director. She’s also been a reliable ally of the business establishment, as when she joined forces against the interests of the center city (and voters at large) in voting to approve the Summit Mall.
The board needs more voices from the urban core of town, where people are dying violent deaths in near-record numbers, where housing stock is deteriorating and where petty crime and homelessness are constant neighbors.
I have no preference on the list of candidates. All may be worthy. It just seems past time to turn to someone other than the usual suspect— a familiar white man from a high-income neighborhood. The city board did that twice not long ago in filling two openings on the Little Rock Airport Commission. It should not follow that pattern this time, but look outside the clubhouse.