Columns » Max Brantley

Money for Mark

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I motored out to Mabelvale for Three Sam’s barbecue the other day and my dessert was a chance encounter with Phil Wyrick.

Wyrick is a former legislator, state agency head and Republican congressional candidate. His better half, B.J., is a member of the city board of directors.

Mr. Wyrick brought up the special election Aug. 14 to expand the powers of “my man,” as he put it, Mayor Mark Stodola.

Mr. Wyrick doesn’t like the idea much. (Nor apparently does his wife. She was one of four directors opposed to putting the issue before voters.) I surprised Phil a little, I think, by saying I wasn’t enthusiastic either.

I’d prefer mayor-council government in Little Rock. It works pretty well in North Little Rock. It would dispense with the three at-large city board seats. This is the democracy-light means by which the business establishment doled out a bit of ward representation but preserved control of city government through the expensive-to-win city-wide board seats.

Wyrick reminded me that Stodola spent most of his big campaign chest talking about crime. “So the most important thing the city has to do now is raise his pay?” Wyrick asked. (I should note that Stodola talked in his campaign about increasing the mayor’s power, too.)

Voters will have two questions in August: 1) Whether to give the mayor a veto, subject to override by eight of the other 10 board members, and 2) whether to make the job full-time and give the mayor power to hire and fire the city manager and city attorney and nominate commission members, subject to board approval.

This is a recipe for mayor-light, except in the pocketbook. Making the job full-time means, by state law, increasing the pay from the current $36,000 to at least $165,000. But the mayor won’t have full control of administrative staff as a pure mayor would, given the need for board confirmation. At the moment, with a competent and well-liked city manager, Bruce Moore, this isn’t a problem. But it could be some day.

I wonder, too, about the supposed wonders of the veto. I happened to run into former Mayor Jim Dailey at the Jim Dailey Fitness and Aquatic Center. In his 14 years as mayor, I asked, would he have used the veto power? He said he’d have to think about it.

Several days later, he called back. He said he could think of only two times in his tenure that he would have used the veto — once on a zoning issue and once on a budget vote, both of which he declined to specifically identify. There might have been one other case, he said. He thought he made more difference as a voting member of the board, because his vote could be used as a negotiating chip to reach compromises on contested issues.

In other words, re veto power: eh.

As several board members have already said, I don’t detect much excitement in the community about a change in government — to this semi-tough mayoral form or any other. You want emotion, talk about the city’s file-a-report response to repeat neighborhood burglaries, vandalism and other lesser crimes.

Mark Stodola will demonstrate real political skills if he can convince disinterested voters he deserves this big pay raise. We might be able to judge the merits of this proposal by how hard he tries.

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