Wednesday, September 10, 2014

EDITORIAL >> The mayor vs. ex-police chief

The Jacksonville mayoral race is heating up, with former Police Chief Gary Sipes gaining momentum and laying out several goals for the city if he is elected.

Sipes, who resigned as police chief in June to run against Mayor Gary Fletcher, is a stronger candidate than we expected. Tapping into pent-up frustration that the city has fallen behind in several ways, Sipes’ message has won over many supporters, judging by his recent campaign kickoff at Southern Oaks Country Club that was attended by at least 100 residents.

The Pine Bluff native moved to Jacksonville in 2008 when he was hired as police chief. Before that, he was police chief in Bryant and had been head of code enforcement in North Little Rock, where he had also been a detective.

When Jacksonville opened its $3.2 million shooting-sports complex on Graham Road, in partnership with the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, nearby residents — including Sipes — began complaining that the gun noise was hurting their quality of life and threatening their home values.

Sipes made it clear during a visit to The Leader recently that the city should have held public hearings before building the firing range and conducted noise studies, but that the problems there will not be his only concern if he is elected.

He will still have to reassure residents that he does not want to hurt the firing range in any way, which could send the city’s finances into tailspin. The city’s monthly mortgage payment for the facility is about $63,000. He should also pledge to conduct city business openly, something Fletcher has succeeded in doing.

Sipes said he will focus on fixing the city’s budget problems, reversing urban blight, revitalizing downtown, repairing streets and reaching out to residents.

He will start by firing Ricky Hayes, the controversial out-of-state economic consultant who has been paid about $250,000 in four years and only helped bring Firehouse Subs to town.

Hayes does not report to the city council, and his defense for lack of progress has been to say that getting big-box stores and chain restaurants takes a lot of time and that Jacksonville lacks raw land to develop.

In a series back in February and March, The Leader talked to many of the cities that Hayes has worked for in the past. About half said he helped bring in a number of stores, while the others said he didn’t deliver on his promises.

Fletcher has said nearly every year since hiring Hayes that the deals he is working on will be announced soon. But Hayes represents too many other cities to adequately represent Jacksonville. It’s a case of too many irons in the fire.

Companies will also likely wait to build along Hwy. 67/167 until the widening project is finished. That will take at least five more years. Big-name restaurants are also waiting to open more businesses in Arkansas until after the November election for the outcome of the liquor initiative to do away with dry laws.

These debates will be further renewed on Sept. 23, when the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce holds a candidates forum.

Mayor Fletcher will have to play it cool during that event if he wants to win over any skeptics. But the bonds he has formed during his 40 years in city politics will help him keep his job.

Sipes said he will also fire the city’s director of administration, Jim Durham, and replace him with retired banker Donnie Farmer, who said he might work for half the pay. (Durham’s salary is $77,000. Fletcher’s is $89,000.)

No candidate, though, deserves to win or lose solely based on his position on Hayes. But, with the city’s finances hurting, this is a pertinent campaign issue.

We hope the winner can best explain how to make Jacksonville’s streets more welcoming by adding street lights and sufficient drainage. With the state Highway Department set to make major repairs on Hwy. 67/167 and Vandenberg Boulevard, the city should take this opportunity to modernize Redmond Road — perhaps the darkest thoroughfare in town — by adding lights, fixing the drainage problems at School Drive and South First Street near Whit Davis Lumber Plus, along with the flooding problems under the train bridge just down the road. The often congested intersection of South First and South Oak streets needs better traffic control and a facelift, too.

All voters in Jacksonville have wish lists like that, and municipal governments should have the ability to tackle most of them.

No mayor can rejuvenate the city alone. He will need the city council to rededicate itself to smart dialogue by contributing ideas and asking questions about the direction of Jacksonville. There’s no need to argue: Take Alderman Reedie Ray’s effort to annex the Valentine Road area. He has repeatedly made a strong case for Jacksonville to annex the area, but the mayor and council decided the city doesn’t have the money to expand and increase its population — even though by doing so the city could get about $200,000 in federal turnback money every year.

Sure, the budget is tight, but if Jacksonville can’t pursue annexation because of money problems, residents deserve an all-hands-on-deck approach.

No matter who wins in November, we hope he can focus on the basics.