FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD: Kathy Webb wants to use her position as Ward 3 city director to make Little Rock "a place where all children can thrive."
As Kathy Webb
enters her fifth year as Ward 3 city director her priorities include improving public safety; working to reduce poverty, hunger and homelessness; and making Little Rock a more sustainable city. One of Webb’s greatest concerns is the way in which the public image of the Little Rock School District impacts its students and teachers.
In working towards these goals, she wants the city to do a better job of sharing its successes.
“Good things happen in Little Rock; it’s not all bad,” she said. “It’s not all good, but it’s not all bad.”
Some of these good things, according to Webb, include the work of students and teachers in the LRSD — even those at schools with so-called failing grades, according to a new state education accountability system. "Failing" schools is a term that doesn’t sit well with her.
“We have wonderful schools in the LRSD. We have schools that are not wonderful, but we have wonderful schools,” she said. “We have wonderful things going on at Hall High, we have wonderful kids going to Hall High. And when we talk about the failing school, it is a self-perpetuating prophecy. … When we adults talk about failing schools, we are damaging not only the kids, we’re damaging the city, we’re damaging the people who work there, and it is wrong. It makes me so angry.”
As a Hall High School alumna
and an advocate of returning the LRSD to local control
, Webb said new Mayor Frank Scott, the board of directors and other city leaders need to use their voices to enact change in the district.
“The one thing that we have … is a bully pulpit, and that’s all we really have,” she said. “I think we need to use the pulpit that we have. We need to use the platforms that we have to continue to advocate for local control.”
Scott’s inaugural speech included pointed mentions of a more transparent city hall
and called for accountability in its proceedings. That would suggest he believes Little Rock government has not been transparent; Webb commented that she thought it was a “rather sweeping statement,” but that “improvements can be made.”
“I’ll say this, one of the things about city government that I’ve been most critical of is that we have done such a poor job of communicating with people and telling people all the really good things that we’re doing,” she said. “There are always things that we can do better. There are a lot of processes that we can improve and make better, but I don’t think that’s a lack of transparency, I think that’s [about] figuring out the right answers to the solutions. That’s not solving the problem. So, it’s not always a transparency issue.”
The Little Rock Police Department also has some praiseworthy programs, Webb said, such as the Coffee with a Cop series and the Pizza with Police events. These outreach programs benefit the community and should help the LRPD improve its uneasy relationship with many members of the public. Webb said she hopes the hiring of a new
police chief will further mend this relationship.
“I’m looking forward to getting a new police chief who can hopefully start to repair that,” she said. “I think getting out in the community does make a difference. … I hope our new police chief will help set a different tone of being accessible to the community, of being proactive and making sure that from his or her position, [for] the captains and lieutenants and patrol officers, the expectations are very clear.”
Scott campaigned on adding as many as 100 officers to the police force over the course of four years. If she were asked to vote tomorrow on expanding the force, Webb said her answer would be no. Webb would rather focus instead on improving public safety by reaching at-risk youth, specifically the 5,500-6,200 18-24-year-olds in Little Rock who, according to data compiled by Marla Johnson and Ken Hubbell
as part of the city of Little Rock’s participation in the Network for Southern Economic Mobility, are unemployed and not enrolled in school or job training programs.
“With public safety, it’s not just making sure that the police department is staffed, it’s also the work I do on [the] Children Youth and Families [Commission],” she said. “And what are we doing for at-risk youth? How are we targeting neighborhoods
that have seen high
crime? Well, what are the free and reduced lunch rates in those neighborhoods
? What are the opportunities for youth for employment in those same neighborhoods
? Is there an overlap? We can’t give a simple pat answer of, if we had X number of police then the problem would go away. No. It’s jobs and it’s opportunity
and it’s hope, and there’s
some wonderful programs for at-risk youth.”
As executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance
and a city director, Webb can engage in the kind of public policy work she’s been interested in since she was in the sixth grade and volunteered as John F. Kennedy’s campaign manager at her school.
“I’ve always gravitated to social justice issues, and … [in] a lot of the work I do at the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, you can look around our city and you can see the effects of poverty, the effects of hunger, the effects of food deserts, the effects on kids who don’t have meals after school and in the summer,” she said. “I’m just lucky to be at a point in my life where there’s that great connection between a lot of the work that I’m fortunate enough to be able to do.”
After graduating from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Va., and attending graduate school at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Webb moved to Washington, D.C., to pursue her interest in public policy. Webb said she’s “always wanted to be in a position to be able to serve” the public. She worked in the women’s movement as the national secretary for the National Organization of Women for six years,
and worked with the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale in 1984 to encourage his choosing Geraldine Ferraro as his vice president.
“I remember how I felt when Walter Mondale picked Gerri to be his vice presidential running mate,” she said. “I remember getting a phone call that night at home, and then I remember going to work that [next] morning, coming off the Metro, coming down Pennsylvania Avenue and into my office. The way I felt, that lightness of step, knowing that as a woman, I could be anything.”
Webb’s voice wavered with emotion as she described attending the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.
“I remember her opening line. I will remember that for my whole life,” she said. “Every time I say it and I think about it, I feel the same way that I did that day when she said, ‘My name is Geraldine Ferraro and I proudly accept your nomination for vice president of the United States.’ ”
Webb made history herself as the first openly gay legislator elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives, an achievement that did not come without its share of painful challenges.
“There were some things that people said that were hateful,” Webb said. “People say less stuff now, but they may still think it. They just don’t tell me as much. … When I was first elected to the legislature, I felt like I had to work harder [than male legislators], but I also felt like, rightly or wrongly, that what I did reflected not only on me, but I felt like it reflected on my community, because I was the first.”
Webb later became the first woman to co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee, a position she said was the result of her rigorous study of the legislative budget process. She now helps train incoming legislators on how to understand and use the state budget, which she said helps keep her sharp.
“The budget is a blueprint of what your priorities are,” Webb said. “As a former business owner, I better know about the budget. I think budgets are interesting, and if you’re interested in policy, I would hope that you would also be interested in a budget,
because you have to pay for these policies. … It’s taxpayer money, so when people ask me questions about the budget now that I can’t answer, and that makes me take time to go find the answer, it makes me better. If I can’t justify it, then I shouldn’t be voting for it.”
Asked her opinion on the more than $170,000 in unused vacation time former Mayor Mark Stodola is claiming,
Webb was quiet for a beat before she answered, “That’s a lot.” Webb voted against a benefit change to Stodola’s pension worth $890,000 over time, a change that passed with a 6-2 vote at the board’s Dec. 18 meeting. At that same meeting, the board held off on a decision as to whether Stodola was entitled to claim 54 weeks worth of unused vacation time, a benefit no other elected official receives. Stodola reasons he’s due this time because he’s required to get the same benefits as the city manager, whose contract provides for accrual of unused time off. The board must decide this month
whether to accede to Stodola’s claim.
Webb said she wants to know how the mayor's benefits package compares to City Manager Bruce Moore
's package, as well as how other cities handle retirement benefits.
“I think to have uncapped
vacation is irresponsible and wrong, and I was very unhappy that this was something coming up,” she said. “It’s just very frustrating, and I’ve heard from many constituents who are very frustrated by it.”
Webb also advised contacting state legislators about Governor Hutchinson
’s proposal to cut income taxes
on the wealthiest Arkansans. She said she would prefer that the state “put money in programs, and I would probably vote that way if I were there,
if I were voting, but I’m not. … If I were in charge, I would probably want to put money into permanent funding for [an affordable] housing trust fund rather than tax cuts, but I’m not in charge.”
To help make Little Rock “a place where all children can thrive” — a phrase she said she took from the Sunday bulletin of her church, First United Methodist — Webb works with countless organizations, committees and associations. She said she does sometimes get a bit stretched thin, but it’s worth it.
“I like to be able to help serve the people I represent,” she said. “But I think on a broader scale, [I try] to serve and try to improve public policy to make the city a better place for everybody.”