Magazine September 2018

Little Rock’s Next Mayor

by Caleb Talley

It’s been more than a decade since anyone other than Mark Stodola has occupied 500 Markham St., having served as the mayor of Little Rock since January 2007.

Stodola was elected to his first term in the fall of 2006, besting three challengers in a race that featured no incumbent. He won reelection in 2010 with nearly 85 percent of the vote and went unchallenged in 2014. In May, Stodola decided not to seek a fourth term.

Come January, the Capital City will be under new leadership, as four local leaders vie for the position. In an effort to inform Little Rock voters ahead of next month’s mayoral election, Arkansas Money & Politics has highlighted each candidate, giving them the opportunity to answer some of the questions weighing on voters’ minds. Here are their answers.

WARWICK SABIN
Arkansas State Representative,
Winrock International Senior Director of U.S. Programs

How do you view the role of mayor in a city like Little Rock, which also has a city manager?

I believe the mayor is the primary public advocate for the citizens of Little Rock because he or she is elected by the entire city to articulate a vision and enact a policy agenda to realize it. It’s certainly true that with the city manager form of government, the mayor has limited direct powers over city departments and employees, but the mayor can be the key leader who engages citizens in their neighborhoods, listens to their concerns, advocates on their behalf to solve problems and unites everyone behind common goals that are critical for the future success of our city.

What do you consider to be the biggest issue facing Little Rock today? What about five years from now?

The biggest issue facing Little Rock today is crime and public safety. Everywhere I go in our city, I meet people who have been victimized by violent crime, who have been violated by a home burglary or a car break-in, who have called 911 only to get no response. I’ve talked with police officers who feel understaffed and under-resourced, business leaders who can’t recruit employees, real estate agents who can’t sell houses or people who won’t visit or shop in Little Rock because of our violent crime problem. We have to address public safety in Little Rock with a sense of urgency, because it is impeding our progress and our opportunity to be successful in all other ways.

In five years, I expect we will still be working to improve our public schools, but as mayor, over the next four years, I hope to make significant progress in creating a city-wide plan to ensure that every student in Little Rock has access to a quality public education no matter where they live.

Too often the quality of public education available to our citizens is based on where they live in the city, and that’s not right, because it cuts off opportunity for our young people. But it’s also created a situation where people are moving out of the city or not moving to the city because they do not have faith or confidence in their school options.

How will you meet those challenges?

In the case of crime and public safety, I want to make sure our police department is fully staffed and has the resources it needs to prevent and respond to criminal activity in an efficient and effective way. I also want to reinstitute community policing, which is a strategy that has worked in Little Rock in the past, because police officers were assigned to neighborhoods where they cultivated good relationships with citizens and had the trust necessary to get good information and more comprehensively address public safety challenges.

I also think we can coordinate among city departments, so that areas like code enforcement, youth services and community programs are part of our approach to preventing and responding to crime in our city. We should emphasize anti-bias and de-escalation training for our police officers in order to defuse potentially dangerous situations and ensure more productive interactions with the community.

As mayor, this will be my critical and urgent priority.

When it comes to our schools, I want to be part of the solution. In six years in the state legislature, I’ve been a strong proponent of public education. I served two years on the House Education Committee. I spoke out against the state takeover of the Little Rock School District when it happened, and I’ve been advocating for a return to local control since that time.

As mayor, I want to make sure that I’m standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our superintendent and an elected school board to create a plan to accomplish one simple goal, which is that no matter where you live in Little Rock you know you can send your kid to a great public school. It needs to be a city-wide effort and a big plan that includes our political leadership engaged with the school district, because nothing is more important than the future of our young people and equitable opportunity for all.

How will you attract both new businesses and new residents?

As mayor, my priority in economic development will be to promote small business development and entrepreneurship, because it’s the most sustainable, effective and equitable approach. Little Rock has a storied history when it comes to the success of its home-grown ventures, and we need to create those opportunities for the next generation of entrepreneurs in every neighborhood in Little Rock.

That should be coupled with the development of our talent and human capital through apprenticeships and workforce training that gives young people and adults access and exposure to every possible opportunity for economic empowerment. When we are creating new businesses and new jobs and giving people the skills to participate in the 21st century economy, we are sure to grow in a steady and sustainable way.

What are some ways in which you will improve city infrastructure?

Our city infrastructure needs a great deal of attention mainly because there is so much inequity from one neighborhood to another. I won’t be satisfied until everyone has the same access to quality streets, sidewalks, parks, playgrounds, drainage, trails and other critical components to a dignified quality of life. We need transparency in how we spend our city funds, and we need to measure our progress toward achieving the goal of not just adequate infrastructure in every neighborhood, but excellence and sustainability in what we provide to our citizens. 

What is your vision for Little Rock?

My wife, Jessica, and I love this city. But we know there’s so much more we can do to help it reach its full potential. We have the opportunity to be one of the best cities in the country, because we’re blessed with a beautiful natural setting and great people who work hard and are committed to our community. But we can do better and that takes leadership that is innovative, energetic, creative, and visionary. There’s more that binds us than divides us, and we can become a more inclusive city; one that values and raises up all of its citizens and not just a select few. We need our families to be safe from crime. Little Rock should be a city that attracts businesses of all sizes and creates jobs that keep families here. Students in every part of Little Rock deserve access to a world-class education. I know we can achieve these goals, and I want to bring new energy and new ideas to city hall as well as a track record of achieving real results through six years in the state legislature, my work in the private sector, and my community service. By working together, we can create a bold new future for Little Rock.

 

Baker Kurrus
Lawyer, Farmer, Former Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the Winrock Group, Inc., Former School Superintendent

How do you view the role of mayor in a city like Little Rock, which also has a city manager?

The city ordinance, which establishes Little Rock’s current form of government, states the mayor is the chief executive officer of the city. This ordinance says the mayor and city manager jointly prepare the city budget, and the city manager administers it. All other duties of the city manager are performed at the direction of the mayor. I have been a chief executive officer of several large organizations, including the Little Rock School District. A prudent CEO in a large organization like the city, with a $265 million budget, must delegate some responsibilities. I will, however, embrace the full authority, responsibility and accountability the ordinance confers on the mayor.

What do you consider to be the biggest issue facingLittle Rock today? What about five years from now?

The biggest issues facing Little Rock are public safety, economic development and education. These matters are intertwined making them inseparable. In different forms, these challenges have been the issues in Little Rock, and other cities, for generations.

In five years we will be dealing with these topics, but I hope we will be working in a more positive way. I hope we are directing more of our resources toward early childhood education, community support and enrichment, and quality of life. We are now spending our resources on incarceration, educational remediation and economic development incentives. These problems are largely rooted in denial and neglect. Our current expenditures are failure-based costs which are expended after problems have arisen, worsened and become very severe. We must move away from dealing with community issues at the end of the failure cycle and start spending our time and money reducing the causes of the problems.

How will you meet those challenges?

In the past, we have not attempted to solve these multifaceted problems in a comprehensive way. When neighborhoods decline, housing deteriorates, crime increases, while population and tax revenues fall. Declining resources stress city services, which makes economic development very difficult because employers and employees do not want to locate in a community with these issues. Student performance declines in troubled areas, and the attendant negative publicity makes all of the issues more difficult to rectify. This spiral effect has to be remedied in a comprehensive way. Economic development, education, crime reduction and quality of life are products of a comprehensive effort to improve neighborhoods. When service providers focus only on their limited responsibilities, the overall mission is often overlooked. When every city employee, whether a code inspector, police officer, waste hauler, firefighter, or neighborhood planner, understands the main mission, results will improve.

How will you attract both new businesses and new residents?

Small businesses are the lifeblood of even the biggest metropolitan areas. Much ado is made of major industrial relocations, but the heartbeat of a city is the small business community. In today’s economy, more and more businesses are not tied to a particular geography, but can locate virtually anywhere due to the communications networks used in the information age. For this reason, cities with high “livability quotients” attract businesses. Most people want safe neighborhoods, sustainable neighborhoods and neighborhoods with a real local sense of place. Progressive growing cities welcome and embrace diversity in every form, and this diversity unleashes the full range of human creativity and potential. This is the engine of economic growth. The suburban neighborhood, with automobile dependence, will still be around for decades, but increasing numbers of people, ranging from millennials to active retirees, want neighborhoods that are walkable, with amenities such as bike trails, walking paths or sidewalks, and connections to parks, sports, the arts and music. Little Rock is ideally situated to meet these needs because we have affordable real estate abounding in the central parts of the city. The employers come, the residential growth follows. Retail and service businesses always follow residential development. This is the essence of the growth cycle we need in Little Rock. We have some business incubator programs, which, if supported well, will yield great results over time.

What are some ways in which you will improve city infrastructure?

We have far more needs than we have money to address them. Little Rock has an estimated $1 billion in infrastructure needs. We have about $20 million per year to spend out of our operating budget for streets and drainage projects. Two bond issues provide another $150 million or so in the next several years to fund specific projects. However, we are like the gardener who has a big dry garden and only a little bit of water. We sprinkle a little here and there, but we don’t get the results we want because there is just not enough to go around.

We need more resources. If Little Rock can grow its population in areas where we already have water and sewer service available, we gain revenue without substantial additional costs. We need to develop vacant lots and rehabilitate vacant structures in our city. We thereby add population and get a greater percentage of the county road tax and the state turn-back money from gasoline taxes. These sources provide more infrastructure revenue with no new debt, taxes or fee increases. We also need to get more “bang” for the money we spend. We end up doing a large number of small projects because we have limited resources. Large projects which could really make a difference are done in multiple stages, and this adds to the costs of engineering and construction. We also end up spending a lot of our bond proceeds on basic repairs and deferred maintenance. Those costs really need to be funded from our annual operating revenue. These are just some of the complex issues that need to be managed with respect to our infrastructure.

The current national administration has talked about a national infrastructure plan. Such a plan is needed. Little Rock has a long-range infrastructure needs plan. We need a long-range capital funding plan to go with it.

What is your vision for Little Rock?

The notion of a succinct and comprehensive “vision” for a large, diverse city is a challenge. I certainly want a clean, healthy city that is providing economic opportunity for all of its residents, while also nurturing its youth, providing entertainment and relaxation to its citizens, and providing everyone with the opportunity to succeed in every way.

Perhaps the better concept of a vision is embodied by some measure of the city’s sense of unity and purpose. How is this to be judged? In some respects, the measure of a society can best be assessed by how it treats the young, the old, the fragile, the dispossessed and the defenseless. I subscribe to that measure, although it is less given to quantitative assessment.

I am an optimist who believes we must aspire to a higher vision.

Frank Scott Jr.
Bank Executive, Former Highway Commissioner, Former Director of Intergovernmental Affairs

How do you view the role of mayor in a city like Little Rock, which also has a city manager?

The mayor is responsible for setting a comprehensive agenda that is responsive to the needs and will of the people. Additionally, the mayor should marshal the human and financial resources for effectively implementing the agenda. I envision the city manager’s role as purely operational, focused solely on executing the agenda the mayor sets forth. This relationship between the mayor and city manager is similar to that of a chief executive officer and chief operating officer – a partnership where I set the vision for Little Rock and take sole responsibility for seeing the vision through with the city manager’s role limited to executing the people’s agenda.

What do you consider to be the biggest issue facing Little Rock? What about five years from now?

The biggest issue facing Little Rock is our lack of economic competitiveness. This stems from three interrelated issues: a stagnant local job market, a public-school system that needs our support and too many families feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods. Altogether, these issues make it harder for Little Rock to compete against Austin, Houston, Nashville and even cities like Huntsville.

It took over several years for Little Rock to get into this position, and it will take at least the next mayor’s full term to get these issues resolved. I believe the next mayor must put forth and execute a comprehensive opportunity agenda to grow our local economy, a real plan to support LRSD and prepare our children for college or the workforce, and a public safety program that will secure our neighborhoods. Lastly, we need a quality of life agenda that will make Little Rock a desirable destination for prospective companies and families looking to relocate.

How will you meet those challenges?

On jobs, for example, I do not think that the mayor’s office has played the kind “chief growth officer” role that is necessary. That is why I would advocate for reshaping the city’s strategic economic efforts by creating the Little Rock Economic Development Corporation (“EDC”), which I would chair. We have had the Little Rock Chamber lead our job creation efforts for close to a decade. Ultimately, creating jobs should be left to someone that is directly accountable to Little Rock voters, and an EDC led by the mayor that would spearhead economic development strategy, with the Chamber as a strategic partner, for the city does just that.

I will also assert more leadership on Little Rock’s Workforce Development Board, as we’ll need to be far more creative about how we create the world-class workforce necessary to grow our economy. We need to be more intentional as a community about how we support LRSD – particularly Cloverdale Middle, Henderson Middle, and Hall High that are considered under “academic distress” – so that we get our schools back as soon as possible. Finally, we need to act and think more comprehensively on public safety. That means 700 sworn officers before the end of my first term and working with LRSD to reduce truancy. We must also wrap our arms around our at-risk youth by targeting some of our summer employment resources to them and rethinking job training and apprenticeships for our reentry residents. We have to engage in real community policing and community prosecution programs. We have to strengthen the relationships between the mayor’s office, LRPD and our U.S. Attorney’s Office to ensure that our most violent criminals are taken off of our streets. And finally, I believe it’s time for Little Rock to have an independent citizen voice solely focused on complaints about police misconduct.

How will you attract both new businesses and new residents?

As mayor, I will be responsible for cultivating an economic environment where our small businesses can thrive and businesses seeking to relocate have the assurances that what matters – a world-class workforce, low-cost operating environment and a City Hall that serves as a partner in their businesses’ growth – are part of the package when they relocate to Little Rock. That means creating a Red Tape Commission that conducts a full review of every touch point our homegrown small businesses have with City Hall from licensing and zoning matters to how we issue building permits that ensures that City Hall does not get in the way of our small businesses. As head of the EDC, a part of my job will be promoting industrial sites in Little Rock to global manufacturers and working with our partners at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and our Governor to assemble incentive packages for corporate relocations. We also need a mayor that will lead an Opportunity Fund that invests in startups so that our homegrown innovators can have their capital needs met right here in Little Rock.

In terms of new residents, we need to look at the kinds of things that attract millennials and empty nesters to our cities, and that means encouraging higher-density development downtown and in our downtown-adjacent neighborhoods, encouraging walkability, supporting our downtown small businesses, and assessing the effectiveness of the city’s first-time homebuyer programs so that we are doing everything we can to encourage young families establish roots in Little Rock.

What are some ways in which you will improve city infrastructure?

I have long expressed support for the 30 Crossing project. This effort will help make roads safer, rush hour commutes less hectic, and better connect residents and businesses with the rest of the region. I define our infrastructure much more broadly to include improving the walkability of many of our streets, and that means expanding resources available to our sidewalks program and prioritizing neighborhoods like John Barrow, Pettaway and other communities that have historically been ignored. I would also encourage more bike and scooter share firms to locate in downtown Little Rock and continue to implement the City’s Complete Streets Ordinance so that we are promoting more bike lanes and alternative forms of transportation. Our infrastructure also includes the Port of Little Rock and Clinton National Airport, and the mayor must be responsible for working with our delegation in Washington to identify every federal resource available to expand the capacity of both.

What is your vision for Little Rock?

I was born and raised in Little Rock, and believe wholeheartedly that the fundamentals are there for Little Rock to thrive – we just need the right leadership in City Hall. Little Rock needs fresh perspective and new strategies that are a clean break from business and politics as usual. We need leadership that is focused on uniting Little Rock and maximizing the ingenuity of our residents to reach its full potential.

My vision is to create one Little Rock that is intentional about inclusivity, economic opportunity and empowerment, and viewing tough issues like public safety as everyone’s responsibility to resolve — not just for the LRPD and communities most directly impacted by crime. Similarly, regaining control of our schools is everyone’s responsibility, not just our teachers and families with students in LRSD schools.

We can make Little Rock a true economic driver in the South, but doing so requires an all-hands-on-deck approach that is driven by the mayor, but includes the Chamber, minority-owned business community, UAMS, UALR and our other major employers. And it requires a mayor that is willing to listen and work with people who do not always agree. Taking Little Rock from good to great requires a leadership that respects differing views and finds common ground, and my vision for the city – which will be unveiled in the coming weeks – will accomplish these objectives.

VincentTolliver
Consultant, Writer, Former U.S. Congressional Nominee

How do you view the role of mayor in a citylike Little Rock, which also has a city manager?

First, it’s important to establish the fact that the City of Little Rock has what’s called a weak-mayor form of city government. This means all 14 department heads, including the chief of police, report to City Manager Bruce Moore, and not Mayor Stodola. This form is antiquated, and I’d work to change it immediately, which of course requires a ballot initiative. My platform calls for a strong-mayor form of city government where all department heads report to the mayor. So, in its present form, the mayor of Little Rock is no more than a figure head – cutting ribbons and presiding over the city directors’ board meetings. This is, of course, nonsense. When I’m elected in November, a top priority of my administration will be ushering the City of Little Rock into the 21st century with a strong-mayor form of city government.

What do you consider to be the biggest issue facingLittle Rock today? What about five years from now?

The biggest issue facing Little Rock is the organized and nefarious stealth assault on the Little Rock School District by the Walton Family Foundation, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Education Commissioner Johnny Key. Five years from now: Transportation.

How will you meet these challenges?

As a progressive mayor of Little Rock, I will continue to be a ferocious advocate of returning LRSD to local control, seek an immediate moratorium on new charter schools, fight to close existing failing charter schools and take the Walton Family Foundation, Gov. Hutchinson and Commissioner Key – who, by the way, wasn’t qualified for the position so the Republican controlled legislature changed Arkansas law so he could be hired – to task for continuing to undermine Little Rock public schools.

In the area of transportation, there is one exciting solution and we’ve already begun the work. As a staunch supporter of public transportation, we will certainly work with my friend Allie Freeman and other Rock Region Metro leadership to determine if there’s an interest in exploring a potential partnership with the company that would deliver this particular transportation solution. The company, Bird, is in the scooter business and based in southern California. Bird scooters are wildly popular with millennials who, in cities across the country, fly around town on them. Our initial conversation with representatives from Bird was terribly exciting and extremely promising. The concept is simple: App-based and $1 lets you fly. And it’s 15 cents a minute after that. As for speed, it goes up to 15 mph. They’d be perfect for the existing bike lanes in Little Rock, which I’d like to eventually expand to the airport and develop a plan to connect neighborhoods and all 7 Wards.

How will you attract both new businesses and new residents?

Organically, yet aggressively. We’ll highlight the natural resources of Little Rock and the extraordinary quality of life in our city. In addition, my administration would target and recruit companies like Apple, Gap and Banana Republic to fill retail voids downtown and in other parts of the city.

What are some ways in which you will improve infrastructure?

Recently, I had a conversation with Director of Public Works Jon Honeywell. I asked him how he would rank the wards according to infrastructure needs. We agreed that Ward 1, where I happen to live, had the greatest need. The next Ward with the greatest need we disagreed. I think it’s Ward 2; Jon said Ward 3. The Street Fund budget is approximately $20 million. This is problematic because the salaries of the 200 plus Public Works employees comes from this budget. As mayor, I’d propose we seek additional infrastructure funds from the existing $175 million Capital Fund budget which is set to expire in 2021-2022. This way we could properly prioritize the current infrastructure needs ward by ward and proceed accordingly and diligently.

What is your vision for Little Rock?

My vision for Little Rock is a city that works for everyone and puts people first, always remembering there are 7 Wards in the city – not just a cherry-picked few. City Hall currently operates like a private club, granting access to a selected few. City Hall is not a private club; it’s the People’s House. As the next mayor of Little Rock, I will insist on a people-first culture. This means when a resident of the city of Little Rock wakes up in the morning, he or she will know and feel that the city is rooting for him or her. Elect Vincent Tolliver in November and I promise one thing: I got your back!

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