Wednesday, April 01, 2009

TOP STORY >> Mayoral candidates discuss issues

Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville mayoral candidates have not yet taken off the gloves, but as the race begins in earnest, Randy “Doc” Rhodd, still bedecked in biker regalia and tattoos, had nonetheless sacrificed the ponytail, and Tommy Dupree wore a sport coat and a tie with a half-Windsor knot Monday when the Jacksonville Senior Center hosted the six candidates vying to replace retiring Mayor Tommy Swaim.

The top topic, ripped from the headlines in The Leader, seemed to be keeping doctors and medical services in Jacksonville and also whether or how to reopen the Graham Road railroad crossing.

Joining Dupree and Rhodd were Beckie Brooks, Kenny Elliott, Gary Fletcher and Jody Urquhart, who spoke in alphabetical order, each speaking for five minutes, then answering questions.

Brooks reminded about 40 people assembled for the forum and lunch that while she hadn’t held elected office, she was active in resolving the Vertac dioxin problem and was a lifelong Jacksonville resident. She said in selling Jacksonville real estate for 30 years, she knew how to sell the community, which she said is now dormant.

Brooks said the community could not afford to lose its doctors and hospital to Cabot or other areas because rents here are too high.

She said that getting to and from the new Lighthouse Academy Charter School on North First Street would be more difficult because the Graham Railroad railroad crossing is closed.

She encouraged those attending to contact Rep. Vic Snyder and Sen. Blanche Lincoln about the Graham Road crossing.

Dupree said it was his first run for office and noted he had degrees from UALR in business, economics and public finance.

Dupree, a builder and developer, said the most important things he’ll look after as mayor are expediting the six-laning of Hwy. 67/167 through Jacksonville and creation of a public-safety commission to oversee police, fire and emergency response operations.

“The system is broken down,” he said.

Active in preserving and promoting the Reed’s Bridge Civil War site, Dupree said that developing tourism based around the site and others, including the Jacksonville Museum of Military History, could be beneficial.

Alderman Kenny Elliott said he has lived in Jacksonville for 50 years and has a long history of service, including being president of the chamber of commerce and chairman of the planning commission.

He said failure of the education system was the biggest problem facing Jacksonville and that he supported a stand-alone north Pulaski County/Jacksonville school district.

Elliott said he would work to keep the hospital and the members of the medical community in Jacksonville.

Some doctors are considering paying for a new appraisal of the clinic because the most recent one is high and requires that the city, as owner, charge higher rents.

He also would establish a housing commission, saying areas of the city, such as Sunnyside, needed help.

Alderman Gary Fletcher said that when his family moved to Jacksonville in 1968, it was one of the fastest-growing communities in the state.

Long involved in politics, Fletcher graduated from Jacksonville High School in 1973 and first ran for city council the following year. He’s been on the council for 31 years.

He said Jacksonville should be promoted as an ideal settling place for retirees, and that keeping the hospital was important to that goal.

Fletcher also called for better transportation around the city.

In answer to a question, Fletcher, a developer, said there was not enough housing in town.

Rhodd told the seniors that Jacksonville still had a lot of needs, including the need to stop the spread of gangs to keep residents safe.

He said he would reopen the Graham railroad crossing if possible. He also favored competitive pay for local police and firefighters.

He said he would take action to have decrepit old houses fixed up or torn town.
Rhodd said unemployment was “sky high” and that people were moving away to work and live.

“We need to keep the money local,” he said. He also favors a local school district.

He said some recent improvements, like the new library and the new Walgreens, were a good start, but more needed to be done.

Jody Urquhart, who works for Arkansas Farm Bureau, said Swaim had given the community 22 years of great service.

“Running is not a decision I took lightly,” he said. “I have friends leaving

Jacksonville and it’s time for someone our age to step up. The main reason is the school system.”

Urquhart said the problems with the hospital and medical clinic were kept quiet and secret at first, but that as city buildings, they should have had transparent and open airing at town hall meetings.

He said Jacksonville residents had a history of coming together to solve problems or get things they needed for the community, citing the new library, the aquatics center, the Little Rock Air Force Base/Jacksonville Joint Education Center and other projects.