Columns » Jay Barth

Fixing the city

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Across neighborhoods, social classes and races, there is a growing consensus that Little Rock's city government is not as healthy as it should be and that its persistent underperformance in meeting the needs of the state's capital city makes the future of a promising city fragile. Last week, I went directly from a drink with one of the most astute observers of politics I know to a dinner down Cantrell Hill with another observer whose insights I thoroughly trust. Besides their smarts and love for Little Rock, the two differ in gender, race, age and background. The first, while recognizing the persons involved in city leadership roles have flaws, thought the real hitch is with the system of government. The second, while recognizing that the institutional structure is not ideal for responding to the city's needs, believed that the central problem is with the humans who play the key roles in that system of government.

So, who is right?

My first friend's "the institutions are the problem" approach certainly has credibility. The mayor-council system that governs most large cities across the country and almost all municipalities in Arkansas has the clear benefit of responsiveness to the community's voters, as the mayor and other elected officials (not just the city council members but also the city attorney, city treasurer and city clerk) all have their positions because of their ability to appeal to (and respond to) the wishes of the voters. In contrast, the city manager form of government that Little Rock adopted in 1957 had a very different benefit: managerial professionalization detached from the whims of the voters.

What Little Rock has, as a result of a series of adjustments across the years, is a system that lacks the benefits of either of these ideals. Instead of a purely professional governance system that the original city-manager system created, 1993 reforms made the mayor directly elected (along with creating seven board positions elected by wards and three to be elected at-large) and a 2007 special election made the mayor a full-time position with the power to veto board decisions and to hire and fire the city manager (and city attorney) with board approval. The result is a city government that's a hydra-headed creature where a mayor, city manager and city board all need to be in consensus for real progress to happen on the issues facing the city. City government in Little Rock gets a lot of small things done just fine, but lacks the ability to implement "big" ideas, according to the "system is broken" camp.

As the Arkansas Blog reported earlier this month, some are arguing that the initiative process should be employed to change the system of government back to the mayor-council system in place six decades ago. Advocates of this shift are looking to bring about change through the petition process in 2018 because this election cycle marks a uniquely easy moment to get that proposal on the ballot in that the number of signatures required is sharply reduced by the low number of votes cast in an uncontested mayoral race in 2014.

My second friend's "the people are the problem" view also has some validity. It's an open secret that the mayor of a dozen years, Mark Stodola, and city manager of 19 years, Bruce Moore, while not political enemies, lack the energetic synchronicity needed for success in the current system of governance. The view here is that a new face in the mayor's office — at a minimum — along with some new blood to replace city board members who have also been in office for years has the potential to create a reinvigorated city government. Those argue that either Frank Scott Jr. or Warwick Sabin — both running against Stodola in an increasingly high-energy mayor's race — could lead the sort of change necessary for the city government to "think big."

We know that the city's voters will have the opportunity to choose a new course in the mayor's office in 2018, although name recognition for the veteran Stodola provides him a pathway to holding on to the key 40 percent of the electorate. As a result of the initiative process, they may also have a chance to return the system of government to a traditional mayor-council model. No matter what, this feels like a year that will produce the sort of debate that the city has needed for a while.

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