Wednesday, October 15, 2014

TOP STORY >> Candidates take jabs in debate

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville mayoral debate that began cordially Tuesday with praise for those who worked to form a standalone school district devolved briefly into a clash between District Judge Robert Batton, candidate Gary Sipes and some in the audience.

But moderator Pat O’Brien — a Jacksonville native, an attorney, a former Pulaski County clerk and a former school board member — quickly restored order with his impassioned chastising and plea for civility.

Other issues tossed around in the almost 90 minutes of back-and-forth at the community center included the city’s budget, economic development, parks, beautification, crime, disaster preparation and transparency, which Mayor Gary Fletcher said were key issues during his term as mayor.

Batton launched his barb when he called out that Sipes was a liar near the halfway point in the debate.

The judge interrupted Sipes, the former police chief, after Sipes said he wasn’t involved in planning the $3.2 million Game and Fish Foundation Shooting Sports Range built on Graham Road.

“I don’t think anybody knew about it but three people,” Sipes said.

The candidate’s retort was that he didn’t know how Batton would know whether he was involved.

After O’Brien got the debate back on track, Fletcher said the former chief must have been asleep during staff meetings with department heads, where the range was discussed for two years.

Sipes said he was at the staff meetings but didn’t attend planning sessions.

Asked whether he had brought up concerns publicly or privately about noise and the lack of public hearings before the decision to build the range was made, the former police chief said he had not.

Fletcher said Sipes should have known to speak up because the mayor’s office and the former police chief had received noise complaints concerning the range at the police department in the past.

The two candidates disagreed on whether the mayor said recently that he didn’t have to have public hearings or town-hall meetings to spend money on projects like the shooting range.

Fletcher called the range an investment in Jacksonville’s future, the city’s No. 1 attraction and a project he had to jump on because “everybody wanted it.” He said the citizens should trust in their leader to make decisions like bringing the range to town.

The question about the range was accompanied with O’Brien’s observations that many have said it is the reason Sipes decided to run.

The former police chief is a resident of Foxwood Estates, and residents there have complained about noise from the range. The complaints surfaced around the same time Sipes announced he was filing to run as mayor.


But the candidate said at the debate he decided to run after benefits to city employees were cut and insurance premiums were raised to balance the budget.

Fletcher was first to speak when asked how good of a job he had done with the budget.

The mayor said employees received raises four out of the five years he was in office and that 40 people, including Sipes, were involved in that process.

Fletcher also accused his opponent of telling him to close parks because the police department, which makes up a third of the city’s budget, couldn’t handle more cuts.

Sipes responded that the mayor asked him to cut an additional $23,000 and promised no more cuts would be made to the department’s employees. But the cuts were made this year, the former police chief said, and they canceled out raises from the previous years.

Sipes criticized Fletcher for spending on five or six projects at a time and not implementing a hiring freeze, although both agreed that capital improvement funds couldn’t be spent on personnel.

Fletcher said he was most concerned with avoiding layoffs and those who were hired were replacements for people who had left departments that have minimum staff requirements, such as the fire department.

Sipes said he would have worked within the minimum staffing requirements in a way that wouldn’t have taken benefits away from current employees.

Fletcher also called Sipes’ platform to cut spending “Washington politics.”


Fletcher’s decision to hire Rickey Hayes of Retail Attractions in Owasso, Okla., was also questioned.

The mayor said the city got involved in economic development to help resolve budget issues because the ways to do that are raising taxes, making cuts or expanding the tax base.

Fletcher said he has always aimed to expand Jacksonville’s tax base.

But the city had obstacles, such as the fact that 90 percent of it is dry. He alluded to two restaurants that came to Jacksonville first but went to Sherwood instead because they didn’t want to jump through hoops to serve alcohol.

Sipes said, if elected, he would eliminate the out-of-state consultant position 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.

Fletcher said Hayes had done all he can do as a national contact by bringing developers to town.

Sipes said police and firefighters lost monthly training because Director of Administration Jim Durham has taken trips to Las Vegas.

Fletcher responded that Durham and City Engineer Jay Whisker have attended conferences that were held there, conferences that people overseas attend to get a McDonald’s in their towns. He added that Sipes had said he would eliminate Durham’s position if elected.

The mayor called Durham his captain and noted that Sipes needed three captains to run the police department.

Fletcher also said, when he hired Hayes at $55,000 a year, he was hiring the seven-member staff of Retail Attractions.

He said Hayes introduced Jacksonville to a company that will build an $18 million ambulatory care campus near North Metro Medical Center.

He did not address Sipes’ claims that the deal may not go through because the owners of property proposed for the campus have told him they are not on board with the project.


Fletcher called the new school district a “game changer that would bring young families to Jacksonville and businesses like movie theaters here.”

Sipes complimented the mayor for his role, but said he was also involved in meetings about the detachment effort.

He said the district would likely take a few years, but, after that, the city should act as a “watchdog” to make sure the school board has the community’s best interests at heart.

Fletcher touted the possibility of building a new high school and elementary school as well as moving the middle school out of its 60-year-old facility.


Sipes said the parks look the same as they did 20 years ago and are in need of improvements. He said the city must work diligently to obtain grants that would fund those improvements.

Fletcher said he wants to sit down with the staff and come up with a five-year plan and suggested Sipes was criticizing parks employees who are doing a good job.

Sipes said he wasn’t blaming employees. But, he said, they may be neglecting some parks because they are focused on the shooting range.


Sipes, in response to a question about what he accomplished as police chief, said he implemented community-oriented policing and reduced crime, crediting the mayor for allowing him to promote a lieutenant to run a specialized unit.

He said adding streetlights would help decrease crime even more, based on his decades of law enforcement experience.

Fletcher argued that the problem goes beyond streetlights, noting that people will continue committing crimes because the county jail keeps closing to all but violent offenders in response to prison overcrowding.

The mayor said the city needs to press legislators and the county on remedying this problem as well as revising a proposed deal that would make Jacksonville pay more than Sherwood to house prisoners at the county jail.

Sipes said prison overcrowding is a battle that would be fought by the city attorney, judges and lawyers.


Both candidates agreed that that first step after disaster strikes is search and rescue.

Sipes said the next is to evaluate damage and apply for relief.

Fletcher said he was at Little Rock Air Force Base five minutes after a 2011 tornado wiped out housing there plus the North Pulaski High School Auditorium.

Sipes complimented the mayor on his response to that disaster.


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.

He said he faced similar pressures to those a mayor faces while he ran the police department. The former police chief said Jacksonville needs new leadership to return to the thriving and prosperous town it once was.

Sipes said the city must change its image by tearing down dilapidated buildings and emphasize communication, which is his management style.

He wants to involve the public more in the city by having quarterly town-hall meetings with aldermen in each ward and establishing a youth council.

Fletcher said the debate focused on the past rather than the future. He argued that the city is making progress. He wants to continue leading Jacksonville.

The mayor said residents need to come together and not be divided to see revitalization.

Fletcher said his opponent had not discussed revenue streams to accomplish goals, something he did when the Hwy. 67/167 corridor was annexed. He said savings combined with a grant and a loan were used to build the public-safety complex containing the police department, fire and training grounds plus a FEMA safe room.

The loan will be paid off in one year and the revenue stream paying that off is the $1.2 million in sales tax revenue the highway corridor generated, Fletcher said.