Tuesday, June 03, 2014

TOP STORY >> Sherwood range takes direct hit

Leader staff writer

Even though plans for an outdoor shooting range in the Trammel Estates area of Sherwood were scrapped a week before the recent city council meeting, it didn’t stop salvos from being fired by the mayor, aldermen and residents toward each other.

Mayor Virginia Hillman made it clear numerous times at the May 27 council meeting that it was not her intent or the city’s intent for this to be an issue.

“This was not done intentionally, and there are no plans for an outdoor shooting range in that area now,” she said at last week’s council meeting.

She quickly added that the range had become a political issue and that she was not going to have any name calling from the council or others. She was particularly upset that a newspaper called Police Chief Jim Bedwell a liar. “Our chief is not.” This newspaper did not call him that, but did quote a resident who believed he was.

Alderman Mary Jo Heye was upset that the city circumvented state law by making the five-acre, $18,500 purchase without going through the council first. “The paperwork was not signed by the police department, but by the city of Sherwood. There’s a process, and we need to follow it,” she insisted.

Resident Jason Mitchell, speaking for the neighborhood where the shooting range was going to be placed, just wanted assurances that it was not going to be built there and that there would be better communication next time.

Hillman said the acreage was purchased with police department drug money and the purchase had been cleared by the Department of Justice as a reasonable use of the money. “That fund usually doesn’t have much money in it, but maybe the council should oversee it similar to other large cities,” the mayor said.

Heye also expressed concern about “what now?”

“Now that we have this property, what are we going to do with it?” she asked.

Alderman Tim McMinn said that, if the city ever sells the acreage, that the money needs to be returned to the drug fund. “It’s not the city’s money.”

Alderman Charlie Harmon said the important thing was to extract the city from this mess now. “What are our options with the property? With overseeing the drug fund? These are questions for the city attorney, and he’s not here tonight,” Harmon said.

City Attorney Steve Cobb, the mayor said, was on a long-planned vacation set before the controversy came up.

The police chief also did not attend the meeting.

Hillman reiterated that this was no quick hidden purchase. “It’s been talked about at our budget meetings. The chief’s been looking for a site for a while. He looked at other possibilities before this one. There was no malicious intent.”

Chief Bedwell had said previously that the range would save at least half of the $6,500 spent per year on officers traveling to and from ranges outside Sherwood.

But, Hillman said, “I just don’t think (the outdoor range is) going to be a good move right now.”

The uproar over the outdoor range began when city equipment was used earlier in May to move donated dirt to the 5.13-acre lot that is zoned for single-family homes. The dirt came from the construction site for the new Mapco Express gas station being built at the intersection of Kiehl Avenue and Brockington Road.

The outdoor range would have had six lanes and 12-foot berms on three sides with trees planted outside the berms. Bedwell said, “I think the impact would have been a lot less than (the opposition) thought.”

His goals were to save the city money and keep officers in Sherwood rather than 20 to 30 minutes away so they could respond to an emergency in the city more quickly.

Bedwell said that, over the last four years, officers have spent 866 hours driving to and from the Cabot, Camp Robinson and Jacksonville ranges.

Alderman Toni Butler complained that the council was not working as a team. “I’m finding out things from the newspaper instead of the city. We are like a family and need to work things out in private before taking it out in public.”

Harmon chimed in that the Freedom of Information Act “handcuffs” the city. “We have to argue in public,” he said.

Don Berry, a mayoral candidate, said after the meeting the purchase was a clear violation of Sherwood ordinances and Arkansas statute.

He said it was “misguided and without regard for the citizens’ quality of life or property value.

“Sherwood missteps in planning and execution have become so routine that several aldermen think this is the way to circumvent the right way to plan, budget,” Berry said.

“Leadership must always put the public trust and confidence ahead of all other priorities by acting with full transparency and involving the approval of a well-informed community board of directors – our city council,” he said.