Columns » Max Brantley

Praise for power brokers

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A fascinating city government drama played out over more than three hours of the Little Rock City Board of Directors meeting last week.

City power brokers rose up to block an ordinance designed to aid Mayor Mark Stodola's fight to keep a day center for veterans off Main Street. They were exactly right to oppose the ordinance, even if their motivation had little to do with the veterans center.

For years, the city has failed in its obligation to serve the homeless. It has failed to establish a day center for homeless despite years of trying. It has resisted past efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs' Central Arkansas Mental Health Services to expand its day center at 2nd and Ringo Streets. Mayor Stodola opposed a move to a bigger building across from the Salvation Army four years ago.

The VA finally decided to go it alone. It advertised publicly for new locations last summer. It found an abandoned car dealership at 10th and Main and drew up plans to convert it. A real estate agent says he told the city about the plans three months ago. The center is allowed "by right" at the location under existing zoning. When the VA announced its pending move, Stodola went ballistic and soon had an ally in U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin.

The VA provides a variety of services to veterans. Not all of them are homeless and all are duly screened participants who agree to rules for service. To hear Stodola and Griffin tell it, however, these veterans are one nip of sherry away from a destructive rampage and should be moved far, far away.

The VA forged ahead. It met with neighbors. It talked incessantly with press and city officials. Stodola was unmoved. He got city staff to cook up an ordinance — four days before last week's board meeting — to thwart the VA. It came under cover in a measure to end by-right zoning for a wide range of businesses and organizations —community welfare or health centers; establishments that serve alcoholic, narcotic or psychiatric patents; religious, charitable or philanthropic organizations, and alcoholic beverage retailers.

Stodola claimed the ordinance was about alcohol — long a concern of directors in majority-black wards. Two black directors, Erma Hendrix and Ken Richardson, didn't buy it. They noted Stodola's sudden emergency interest in booze sales came only after the vet center controversy.

Stodola still might have won but for the business community. Realtors, property owners and grocery and convenience store representatives said repeatedly that emergency adoption of an ordinance not completed until that morning was a bad idea. They said it covered too many organizations, with the likelihood of too many unintended consequences. It was styled as a cleanup of an effort to provide a public hearing process for temporary residential facilities, but the ordinance had nothing to do with transitional residences.

The business crowd got through to city directors where the war veterans had not. The ordinance was delayed for a month. That won't be enough to fix the many problems, first with the city's illegal attempt to arbitrarily interpose itself as arbiter of what businesses can and cannot qualify for an alcoholic beverage permit.

Does the delay provide enough time for the VA to get sufficiently underway? Can it begin a more convenient and efficient service center for our veterans before the mayor concocts another roadblock? More chapters to come.

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