The city manager form of government in Arkansas is starting to look like an idea whose time has come and gone.
City-manager government arrived in Arkansas in the mid-1950s, an era when many citizens wanted more professionalism and less politics in their local government. Most of those people were well-to-do business types, unelected leaders of their communities but leaders nonetheless. They thought of themselves as promoters of good government, and some even belonged to organizations called “Good Government League,” or something on that order. They were supported by their hometown media, usually eager to ingratiate themselves with the powerful.
As many as 15 Arkansas cities adopted city-manager government in those early years after the state legislature authorized it as an alternative form of municipal government. Today, only five retain the city-manager system – Little Rock, Arkadelphia, Hot Springs, Hope and Texarkana. Residents of the other cities voted to return to the mayor-council form. These include Fayetteville, Maumelle, Benton, Malvern, Camden and Newport.
Anti-city-manager voters today usually say that mayor-council government is more responsive, that it acts and reacts quicker, that in a more political system they know better who to take their problems to and how to apply pressure to get those problems solved. City-manager government is seen as more distant, slower to act, too much inclined toward task forces, studies and consultants.
City manager government came to prominence nationally in the early 20th century, but was slow reaching Arkansas, a familiar pattern. Little Rock, the largest city in the state, was among the first to go city manager, voting to do so in 1956. The vote followed considerable dissatisfaction with the administration of Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann. Allegations of cronyism, irregular purchasing procedures and general hanky-panky were heard. A grand jury investigated. No criminal charges resulted, apparently, but according to the Arkansas Gazette, the state's largest naewspaper, “The Jury said that the people of Little Rock had lost control of their city administration and recommended adoption of the manager plan.”
After the special election, Mann remained in office through 1957, a lame duck, but attracted notice during the 1957 integration crisis when he was almost the only public official around who dared criticize Gov. Orval Faubus. The first board of directors under the city manager system was elected in November of '57. Dean Dauley was hired as the first city manager.
With the consent of the legislature, Little Rock's city manager system has been tweaked a time or two. The tweakings concerned the election of more directors from wards and fewer elected city-wide. Critics say that city-wide votes lessen the influence of minorities.
A few years back, Bill Walker, then a member of the state Senate, sponsored legislation to give the mayor more power, including veto power, in Little Rock city government. Walker later ran for mayor himself. He was defeated, but Mayor Mark Stodola is using Walker's legislation in a proposal to increase the power of the mayor. The board of directors voted to submit the proposal to voters at an Aug. 14 special election.
“When you run for mayor now, people want you to do things that you can't really do,” Stodola said in an interview. Asked if approval of the plan could lead to his being called “Boss Stodola,” he laughed. “Do people talk about Boss Hays?” Probably not, but some believe that North Little Rock's mayor-council government, under Mayor Patrick Hays, works better than Little Rock's city manager system. And some of them believe that Stodola's proposal for a stronger mayor should be only a first step toward the larger goal of readopting mayor-council government.
On the other hand, Roby Robertson, director of the Institute of Government at UALR, believes that whatever Little Rock calls its system of government, the system should include a strong, professionally trained administrator to run things. This person could be called something other than “city manager” and he or she could report to the mayor rather than the city board, but the professionalism should stay, Robertson said.