Friday, September 26, 2014

TOP STORY >> Mayor hopefuls speak of plans

Leader staff writer

The two candidates for Jacksonville mayor spoke about their plans for the city during the chamber of commerce’s general membership luncheon last week.

Mayor Gary Fletcher took to the microphone first. He announced, during the 15 minutes each candidate was given to talk, “We’re fixing to make a major announcement in a couple of weeks dealing with medical.”

He also said Jacksonville has a lot of potential and its best days aren’t behind it. “We’re not driving across the rearview mirror; we’re driving through the windshield.”

The mayor announced that sales tax revenues were up by 8.85 percent.

He touted that — despite being elected during the worst economy since the Great Depression and losing federal turnback funds after a decrease in population — city employees were given raises four out of five years.

His opponent, former Police Chief Gary Sipes, said he first considered running for the office because city employees had suffered from a 2 to 4percent decrease in their salaries when benefits were cut to balance the budget.

One of Sipes’ goals is to eliminate the out-of-state economic development consultant position held by Rickey Hayes in favor of a local economic developer who would work closely with the chamber.

He argued, “I think that we’ve got to not necessarily go for a home-run hit. I think we need to take care of what we have.” Sipes said local small business owners feel neglected by Jacksonville.

Both candidates praised the community for supporting by a 95 percent vote detaching from the Pulaski County Special School District to form a standalone Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district.

Sipes said, “As a city, we want to make sure we have world-class education for our kids and the facilities, the best facilities, that we can afford as a city.”

Fletcher said lack of local control over education, caused by the federal desegregation lawsuit, kept the city stagnant.

Sipes emphasized his plans to hold quarterly meetings with residents in each of the city’s wards and to form a mayor’s youth council.

Sipes said, “Everybody would have a place at the table...I want to hear what they feel the problems are in their community and what we can do as a city to improve. At the same time, I want them to know what projects are going on in the city…I feel like there is a lot of apathy in this town because they don’t know what is going on.”

The youth council would encourage youth to return to their hometown after college and start businesses here, Sipes said.

The candidates sparred over the Arkansas Game and Fish Shooting Sports Complex before Sipes announced his intention to run.

Fletcher praised the range, saying it sold $52,000 in merchandise over four weekends.

Sipes said, “It’s a wonderful facility; it really is” and called the range “first-class.” But, he explained, there should have been public hearings and a sound study conducted before the range was built.

Sipes and other residents of the Foxwood subdivision have complained about hearing shots ring out while at their homes.

Sipes also described how he found the school buses that had packed the range’s parking lot during a youth tournament parked at North Little Rock hotels near McCain Mall after the tournament.

“It just made sense. Kids have to have somewhere to go.” Sipes said the city needs lighting, sidewalks and improvements to parks that are in “bad shape.” He hoped grants would help.

He also said, “I think we’ve got to get back to our financial stability…If you don’t have it, you don’t spend it.”

Fletcher said he had to make tough decisions in office and made life-long enemies when he tried to annex residents north of Jacksonville.

The mayor successfully annexed the Hwy. 67/167 corridor though, and said that brought in $1.2 million in a year to help the city pay on loans for the new police department and public safety complex on Marshall Road.

Both candidates described their backgrounds to the audience.

Fletcher said he grew up in Jacksonville and started attending city council meetings at age 16. He joined the Jaycees as a Jacksonville High School senior.

Fletcher was appointed to the planning commission and later elected to the council.

He ran for mayor three times. Fletcher quipped that he lost the first two times because he was too young at age 28 and two controversial at 32. He joked that he won at age 55 because he couldn’t do any harm then.

The mayor turns 60 next month and said he sees things from a spiritual perspective. “I feel like I was created for this position. I was a natural fit.” He also thanked former mayors for being his mentors.

Sipes said he is a Pine Bluff native and graduated from the high school there in 1975. He moved to North Little Rock after meeting his wife of 38 years because she lived there.

Sipes followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a police cadet in North Little Rock at age 18. While on that force, he earned a degree in justice administration.

He left in 1999, having risen up through the ranks there to become the lieutenant commanding the community-oriented policing unit.

Sipes said his unit was tasked with cleaning up the Argenta neighborhood. Community developers, state and federal resources flowed into the area after it was cleaned up.

Patrick Henry Hayes, who was the North Little Rock mayor than and is now running for the second congressional district seat, hired Sipes to oversee code enforcement.

While he was in charge, Sipes said more than 100 dilapidated structures were demolished.

He left North Little Rock for Benton, where he was hired for his dream job of being a police chief.

Sipes said his family moved three miles outside of Jacksonville in 1986.

He was hired as the city’s police chief in 2008.

Sipes said he also leaned on faith in the decision to run. “This is something I’ve never done before, but (my wife and I) felt it was what God wanted us to do.”