Wednesday, October 15, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Feisty debate in Jacksonville

Last night’s debate at the Jacksonville Community Center between Mayor Gary Fletcher and his opponent, former Police Chief Gary Sipes, revealed the tensions that have been brewing in this race since the day Sipes resigned to run against his old boss.

It was a hard-hitting debate with the the candidates’ supporters sitting on separate sides of the auditorium. The place was packed, as it was for last month’s meeting before the historic vote on a separate school district. No one can say Jacksonville residents are not involved in the important issues that will determine the future of their city. (See story, page 1A.)

Besides the controversial firing range, other issues discussed in the almost 90 minutes of back-and-forth included the city’s budget, economic development, parks, beautification, crime, disaster preparation and transparency and more.

Fletcher said he was not happy the debate focused on the past rather than the future. He insisted the city is on a high road right now and he wants to lead it while it goes even higher.

Sipes said, if elected, he would eliminate the out-of-state consultant in favor of hiring someone who has ties to Jacksonville and working with the chamber. He argued that a local economic developer has been successful in Sherwood, Cabot and Beebe.

The former police chief wants to involve the public more in the city by having quarterly town-hall meetings with aldermen in each ward and establish a youth council.

Sipes said the city must change its image by tearing down dilapidated buildings and emphasize communication, which is his management style. In his closing and opening statements, Sipes said Jacksonville had lost 80 businesses in the last few years. He said the city needed to support those that are still here but feel neglected.

The divisiveness of the Fletcher-Sipes showdown may not please everyone in Jacksonville, a usually quiet and uncontroversial community. But that was before the city opened its $3.2 million shooting-sports facility on Graham Road, a mere 500 yards from Sipes’ backyard in the Foxwood Estates neighborhood, where homes can cost up to $500,000.

Noise complaints followed after its opening, as did accusations about inept planning after city officials confirmed that they did not conduct a sound study and the city council held no official public hearings for the project.

Some in Sipes’ camp argue that the city is now going broke, claiming that the gun range is losing $50,000 a month or more, which is not the case.

Sipes should come out and say that the shooting range’s finances are doing well, or at least better than expected. He’ll have a harder time doing it after if he wins the election.

Some Foxwood Estates residents may still be considering a lawsuit, but it appears the city may be protected because of an obscure state law that prevents cities from being sued over noise complaints related to municipal gun ranges. Only in Arkansas? One wonders.

We sympathize with Foxwood Estates residents, who can hear thousands of rounds being fired when tournaments are being held. Many home buyers are likely going to be discouraged from moving to the neighborhood.

The conflict, like many of Jacksonville’s challenges, seems like it could have been avoided if the city council, the mayor and residents had asked more questions during the planning stages.

Speaking out before it’s too late helps. Residents in Cabot’s Glenwood Estates blocked plans to build a new-style subdivision that would have placed dozens of homes on just 6.2 acres.

Residents in Sherwood recently inspired the police department there to cancel its plan to build a firing range on Trammel Road.

Sipes, after all, did attend many of the city council meetings while plans for the gun range were discussed and had many opportunities to voice concerns to city officials.

It’s tempting to wonder what Jacksonville’s schools would look like had parents spoken out more forcefully and challenged the Pulaski County Special School District to do a better job.

Pat O’Brien, who moderated the debate on behalf of the Jacksonville of Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored the event, tried his best to keep it focused on how the candidates plan to revitalize Jacksonville, but with animosity running high between Fletcher and Sipes, things were bound to get off track.

Residents can be forgiven if they walked away from the proceeding feeling like O’Brien was the better candidate, though. Unfortunately, he has left politics behind since being defeated by Mark Martin for secretary of state in 2010. We hope to see him on the city council someday or maybe the new school board.