Saturday, June 06, 2009

TOP STORY >> Alligator wrestling comes to Ward

Leader staff write

What do you do when you see an alligator about to cross the road?

Faced with that question Tuesday evening, Lonoke County Sheriff Jim Roberson, a former rodeo performer, lassoed the animal and jumped on its back like it was one of the bucking broncos or bulls he rode in his younger days.

Then while the sheriff held the gator’s mouth, one of the 20 or so motorists who had stopped to watch the unusual sight taped it closed.

“We called the Game and Fish but they were going to be awhile and he was trying to get away,” the sheriff said.

The spectacle was played out on Hwy. 38 between Butlerville and Coco’s restaurant in Ward. The sheriff said he acted because he was afraid that just the sight of an alligator near the highway was enough to cause wrecks.

Except for one scratch on the sheriff’s finger, no one was injured. But the sheriff said catching the gator was trickier than he thought it would be.

“I was worried about his head, but his tail was just about as vicious,” he said.

When Game and Fish officials arrived, Roberson said he helped load the gator into a truck and he hoped it was relocated to a place where it could help thin out the beaver population.

The gator, a 5-foot, 3-inch female that was likely in search of a mate since May and June are the breeding season, was released unharmed into the backwater of the Arkansas River, said Kelly Irwin, herpetologist for the Game and Fish Commission and the state’s leading expert on alligators.

Irwin said the 2,800 alligators that were taken from the swamps of Louisiana and released mostly in the southeastern third of Arkansas between 1972 and 1984 have increased to as many as 5,000. But the population does not appear to be expanding and neither is their range.

According to the Game and Fish Web site, most adult alligators are 6 to 12 feet in length. But females are usually smaller than males and stop growing at 6 to 7 feet.

Alligator have been in Arkansas for thousands of years before settlers cleared and drained the land where they lived and hunted them without restriction, Irwin said.

By the 1960s they were on the endangered species list but 30 years of federal and state regulation and restocking efforts have increased their numbers throughout the southeastern U.S. Now they are protected, but no longer endangered.

In Arkansas, there is even a hunting season the last two weekends in September in which a lottery, much like the one used for elk hunting, allows the taking of 32 alligators.

About 80 percent of Arkansas’ imported alligators were placed on private property at the request of the owners who hoped they would thin out the beavers that dam waterways and cause flooding problems, Irwin said.

Since adult alligators eat fish, birds, beavers, otters and other mammals, the theory was plausible. But beavers, which Irwin said rebounded without assistance from Game and Fish, still thrives in the state.

For the most part, alligators are not dangerous, he said, adding that he has heard of no injuries from alligators in the nine years he has lived in Arkansas.

“Most move away when humans approach but females are protective of their nests,” he said.

Stopping short of calling the sheriff’s actions illegal, Irwin said not even local law enforcement officers have the authority to trap an alligator.

From the pictures he saw of the area it looked like it was not heavily populated.

The gator appeared to be in a horse pasture where it was not a danger to small children or pets.

“That is a wild animal. They need to contact Game and Fish and let us deal with the situation,” he said.

The agency has teams all over the state trained to deal with nuisance black bears and alligators.

So what should you do when you see an alligator about to cross the road?

The alligator is protected by state and federal laws, and it is illegal to feed, possess, harass or kill them, Irwin said.

He suggested leaving them alone and calling the Game and Fish Commission to handle trapping it.

“Keep an eye on it, but keep your distance,” he said.

Friday, June 05, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Lottery boss hits jackpot

After dallying with lottery legislation themselves for months, Arkansas lawmakers suddenly insisted that speed was essential and stampeded the state Lottery Commission into hiring a director of the Arkansas lottery Friday. They hired a man who had not applied for the job at a salary far exceeding the one that he is getting and about whom they knew precious little.

We hope he is exactly the right person for the job and that they (and the rest of us) do not have to repent in leisure what they did yesterday in so much haste.

Ernest L. Passailaigue Jr. sounds like he has the credentials that the lottery promoters, including Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, wanted.

They said the director should have lottery experience, which excluded everyone in Arkansas. Passailaigue is the executive director of the South Carolina lottery. He had no experience with lotteries before he became head of the new South Carolina lottery in 2001. He was a politician.

“We’ve got a winner,” Halter said.

Passailaigue should satisfy the legislators who have been pushing for quick action in getting the lottery going. Passaliaigue is a former South Carolina state senator. In fact, he sponsored legislation creating the South Carolina lottery and then became its first director. He also ran for governor of South Carolina in 1990 and lost rather badly. He is an accountant and once owned a professional baseball team.

With credentials like that, why look any further?
The state Lottery Commission, largely handpicked by state legislators, panicked this week when legislators grumbled that the commission was taking too much time picking a director, which was postponing the day when Powerball tickets would go on sale. So the commissioners met in secret session twice at the end of the week and chased down Passailaigue, who agreed to take the job at a salary of $324,000. Actually, it was Passailaigue who suggested the figure, and the commission instantly agreed. He is earning $226,829 a year at Charleston. But Chairman Ray Thornton said Passailaigue would be giving up some benefits that he gets in South Carolina, which he did not identify. Presumably, the Arkansas job will come with health and retirement benefits.

In South Carolina, the principal qualification for the man to kick-start the lottery was to be a well-connected politician who had sponsored legislation to create a lottery. In Arkansas, the qualification apparently was the same, with the additional qualification that he have actually got one started.

The extraordinarily lucrative Arkansas offer comes at a good time for Passailaigue. Blogs have been titillating South Carolinians with reports that the lottery chief, who is married and has seven children, moved a woman out of his office and into another $67,000-a-year position in the big lottery operation after complaints from employees that she was his girlfriend. The South Carolina lottery is a big, big operation — some 150 employees. We’ll soon have another big bureaucracy at Little Rock.

But what the lottery commissioners, the lawmakers and Halter, the lottery godfather, wanted was someone who could get over the early hurdles quickly so that people can start gambling their checks away before the end of the year. Passailaigue ought to be the man for that. We don’t think that is worth anything close to $324,000, which is nearly four times the governor’s salary and more than the director of any state department, but we admit it: We have a poor appreciation for the value of lotteries. It clearly is the most important undertaking in modern history.

We will suspend our misgivings and hope that Ernie Passailaigue will take Arkansas into the bright tomorrow that the lottery promoters say is coming.

TOP STORY >> Koko sang ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ to us

Leader executive editor

Koko Taylor, the Queen of the Blues, appeared at the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival in Greenville, Miss., last September.

We’d missed her show because the festival had been moved without much advance notice. But we caught her back stage and asked her to autograph a publicity shot her record company had sent us. We then asked her if she’d sing just a tiny bit of her big hit, “Wang DangDoodle,” and she obliged us while we sat on a bench.

We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long

All night long, all night long, all night long.

We hugged and promised to look her up in Chicago, but she looked frail — she’d been in poor health for years — and we didn’t think we’d see her again.

Koko died on Thursday at the age of 80 in Chicago, where scores of other great blues artists who’d migrated there from the South are buried.

We first met her more than a decade ago, when her band from Chicago appeared for a fund-raiser for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss. John Mayall was on the bill, and Buddy Guy was the headliner.

Koko and her group may have driven down from Chicago (years later, a couple of her musicians were killed on the road trying to get to a gig). She was never a megastar like Buddy Guy or John Mayall. But she was just as good.

Taylor’s family moved to Chicago from Memphis in the early 1950s, and she soon became part of the jumping blues scene that included transplants from all over the South.

It was an amazing gathering of great artists who were born in a region where the blues began. But few women rose to the top in a field dominated by men since the 1930s. Before that, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and other women were the stars.

Then tastes changed, so it was remarkable for Koko Taylor to take her rightful place in the Chicago blues pantheon. She had a powerful voice till the end, even though she’s had a couple of operations and many health problems.

She recorded Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” on Chess in 1965, and remained a star for the rest of her life. Her finest recordings are gathered on a Chess compilation titled “What It Takes,” where she’s backed by some of the finest blues musicians in Chicago: Big Walter Horton (harmonica), Buddy Guy, Robert Nighthawk, Jack and Louis Myers (guitar), Lafayette Leake (piano), Dixon (bass) and others.

There’s also a similarly titled CD from Alligator (her label for more than 30 years), titled “I Got What It Takes.” This, too, has several top-notch Chicago bluesmen, including Sammy Lawhorn of Little Rock, Mighty Joe Young on guitar, Abb Locke on saxophone, Bill Heid on keyboards and Vince Chappelle on drums.

Wonderful musicians, wonderful singer.

“There’s not a lot of young people listening to the blues,” Koko told an interviewer. “I want to educate the next generation and show them how to sing the blues. I want to get it through their little heads the blues is cool, and the blues will never die. It’s music that sticks to your ribs—like red beans and rice.”

May she keep singing to us from heaven. Rest in peace, Koko.

TOP STORY >> Mayor-elect has his team ready to go

Leader staff writer

With a new mayor come new people and new ideas. Mayor-elect Gary Fletcher has already started to make plans for his new team to lead Jacksonville forward.

“To be a successful administration, you’ve got to surround yourself with a successful team,” he said.

“I’m going to have to get a lot done in just 12 months before I start thinking about re-election. I’ve got to show that I can get the work done,” Fletcher said.

The mayor-elect said he’s focused on three main areas: schools, annexation and re-examining the Graham Road closing.

His team to help him do this will include businessman Jim Durham as the director of administration to bring a “business and retail attitude to city hall.”

Current city administrator Jay Whisker, who has split his duties between administration and city engineer duties, will become the city engineer, a job he held previously.

Fletcher, 54, said it would be a lateral move and no reduction in pay. “We need Jay working full-time on our annexation issues, streets and drainage. It has to be someone with expertise who I can trust, and that’s Jay,” he said.

City planner Chip McCulley, who was hired when Whisker left city employment for a short time before coming back as the administrator, will stay on, too. “As city planner, his focus is on code enforcement and cleaning up the city,” Fletcher explained.

Fletcher, who will take over July 1, said the mayor’s job is not a one-man show. “We need a solid group of people working together for the best for Jacksonville,” he said.

Fletcher likened his election to fill the last 18 months of retiring Mayor Tommy Swaim’s term to a quarterback coming into the game in the fourth quarter. “I’ve got to move the team and score so I can get into the next game at the beginning,” he explained.

Once Fletcher moves into the mayor’s office, the city council will have to appoint a replacement to Fletcher’s council seat. “I expect there’ll be three or four applicants. It will be the council’s decision. I won’t endorse anyone,” he said.

The alderman candidate will have to live in Ward 4, which is basically north of Main Street and west of Hwy. 67/167.

Fletcher, like most Jacksonville residents, is upset with the way the school district has treated Jacksonville over the years. “I don’t feel they have a clue how to give us a quality education. Every day that problems persist is another day that it hurts our children,” he said.

Fletcher added that he was embarrassed by the condition of the city’s schools. “They need to be better than that. Our kids are better than that,” he said.

Fletcher said, “The mayor is the head of the city and has to be up in front on this issue and not take a wait-and-see attitude. We’ve been reactive too long. It’s time to take the bull by the horns.”

The mayor-elect is displeased with the movement of school administrators and putting all the middle school students back under one roof. “That building is undersized and not up to code,” he said.

Fletcher said as mayor he would offer the district an olive branch. “I want to play nice.”

Durham said Fletcher would approach the district with a carrot in one hand and a big stick in the other, in case the carrot doesn’t work.

When it comes to the question of the closed Graham Road crossing, which some residents feel has helped isolate Sunnyside from the rest of the city, Fletcher has said the issue needs revisiting.

“I don’t ever remember seeing an economic study, and we all know what happened economically. Closing that crossing has hurt a lot of people. We need to push and see exactly what it would cost us (to reopen it). I can’t see them making us pay all the money back,” he said.

Fletcher added that years ago there was talk about curving Main Street into Graham Road. “We need to look at that again.

We’ve got a $4 million overpass and will soon have a $7 million improved Graham Road with two one-way streets in the middle. Traffic needs to flow.”

Fletcher wants to annex everything north along Hwy. 67/167 up to the county line. “We need to expand, “ he said.

Fletcher has lived in Jacksonville since 1968 and has been on the council since 1978. He is president of Fletcher Homes. He is married and has two children and five grandchildren.

TOP STORY >> School construction costs remain $14M

Leader staff writer

The Cabot School Board learned this week that the cost of the combination building on the high school campus that will be used for health, physical education and recreation as well as a cafeteria and amphitheater (HPER/cafeteria) will likely cost the same as it was expected to cost five years ago when it was first on the drawing board.

Dr. Tony Thurman, the school superintendent, told the board Tuesday that although nothing is final, the building will likely cost $14 million, including the $773,000 that architect Steve Elliott will be paid.

As with all construction projects, the school district is the contractor and all the bids are from companies that will supply various parts of the new structure such as electrical, plumbing, windows, flooring, gym seating and the like.

“We were thinking a lot higher so we were very pleased,” Thurman told the board.

To get ready for construction to begin, some buildings will be torn down; others will be relocated and programs will be moved to new homes. The project is expected to be completed in 30 months.

The HPER/cafeteria is among $50.5 million in projects that were made possible by the 3.9 percent millage increase voters approved last year. In addition to work on the high school campus, several additions and improvements district-wide, the millage increase is helping to fund an elementary building estimated at $11.3 million.

To get the site ready to start the dirt work this summer, Thurman said the old metal agriculture building and the old concession stand will have to be removed. The ROTC building will be moved to Junior High South and used as an activity building. The old counseling center will also be removed.

The ROTC program will move to the former media center on the high school campus once the renovations are completed.

Those renovations are expected to be completed by the time school starts in August.

The agriculture program will move to the S-Building on the high school campus. Once the HPER/cafeteria is completed, the S-Building. will be renovated for additional classroom space.

The existing cafeteria will be renovated for a modern agriculture education center.

The current bus drive through the center of the high school campus will move to the front of the Career and Technical Center (formerly Champs Hall).

The current Fine Arts Center will be renovated once construction on the HPER/cafeteria has been completed and will share a lobby with the new HPER/cafeteria.

Construction is winding down on the new Junior High North that started almost two years ago and it is expected to be ready for students in the fall. The original Junior High North burned three years ago.

The portables that have been used since the fire to house students are scheduled to be removed in the next two weeks, Thurman told the board.

The new Junior High North will be larger than the original, 127,282 square feet compared to 102,400 square feet. It will cost the $13.5 million with furnishings.

Four additional classrooms will open in the fall at Westside Elementary. The dirt work is under way at the new Mountain Springs Elementary that is expected to open in the fall of 2010.

The district also is negotiating the purchase of the Funtastic building on Hwy. 321 for $1.3 million. It will be used for the district’s alternative school and charter school. Thurman said renovations will likely not be completed by the time school starts.

TOP STORY >> No to portable buildings

Leader senior staff writer

Pulaski County Special School District officials say they will add five portables to alleviate a classroom shortage next year at the newly coeducational Jacksonville Middle School but the town’s mayor-elect says “not in our town you won’t.”

“Jacksonville is not a trailer park,” said Gary Fletcher, who assumes duties as mayor on July 1. “We’ve been here 100 years and I don’t support temporary buildings for a permanent problem.”

To the distress of many Jacksonville leaders and parents, its board member Bill Vasquez has worked for more than a year to dismantle the single-gender middle schools despite evidence that they were effective academically and in reducing discipline problems.

But the Pulaski Association of Class-room Teachers wants control of those schools. Vasquez, board president Tim Clark and Gwen Williams, all steadfast friends of the union, were joined by Charlie Wood of Sherwood earlier this year to combine the schools on Vasquez’s motion.

The issue cannot be voted upon again unless reintroduced by a school board member who passed the policy. Vasquez, Clark and Williams are unlikely to do so, leaving Wood as the last hope of the single-gender advocates.

Wood could not be reached for comment.

July 1 is the deadline to reconfigure schools for the 2009-2010 school year, and Jacksonville school activists will join the new mayor, his city engineer and others Tuesday night hoping to argue their case at the last regular school board meeting.

So far, they say they have not been able to get on the agenda to discuss the contentious item, but will at least speak out during the public-comment period.

Even if the action is not re-versed, the large coed school is still not a done deal. The U.S. District Court and the state could have something to say about the use of portables, according to Martha Whatley of Jacksonville. Whatley, a longtime educator, says the state wants to get rid of portables by 2010.

Jacksonville Fire Marshal Mike Williams may not approve the portables, or the overall condition of the building, which still has plumbing, electrical, drainage and other problems, perhaps including asbestos.

Whatley, Daniel Gray, Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), former Rep. Pat Bond and her engineer/husband Tommy Bond joined Williams, city administrator Jay Whisker, city engineer Chip McCulley for a tour of the building school officials intend to use for the coeducational middle school next year, and Perry said they were concerned.

“They are trying to put a fresh dress (on it), but the issue is structural as well as health related,” Fletcher said.

“We have to make sure everything falls into code, no violations from fire or health. The city has to have a say on code violations. We need to sit down and they have to understand what needs to be done,” Fletcher said.

“We want our (own) school district. We won’t accept anything less, and we want it now,” he added.

Whatley said that problems that must be resolved include asbestos abatement, plumbing, loose wires, and sub-standard bathrooms, and there were health concerns as well as fire-code and building code problems.

“I’m extremely concerned with what children are having to put up with,” she said.

“(The district’s) plans keep changing,” said Fletcher. “They sent plans to the engineer department for the middle school and now we’re told they are going to make a change. We don’t know what the plans are.”

The district had about $430,000 to get the building, known as building 600, ready to accommodate all middle school boys and girls and teachers next year, according to Gary Beck, acting executive director for support services.

But bids came back about $100,000 over that, so the project has been cut back.

Those numbers included leasing and setting up the five portable classrooms.

Instead of replacing the bathrooms, they will be repaired, he said. Also cut from the list are additional canopy replacements or repairs.

Some canopy will be repaired, some additional classrooms readied and drainage work done near the band room, Beck said.

“I don’t think the fire marshal will approve the plan,” Perry said. “In order to meet the capacity, they need portables,” said Perry.

He said that plan would have to be approved by U.S. District Court, where the school desegregation case languishes.

Perry said the portables also would have to be approved by city code and fire marshal officials.

PCSSD desegregation lawyer Sam Jones said Thursday that he disagreed.

Plan 2000 requires that we inform the Joshua Interveners of any plan that involves an increase in capacity, according to Jones, but “I don’t read Plan 2000 to require us to get approval of the court.” Jones said he was writing Joshua lawyer John Walker on Friday.

“We are past the point of remodeling,” said Fletcher. “We need new construction like the others (a new high school slated for Maumelle and a new Sylvan Hills Middle School).”

Fletcher and engineer Chip McCulley want to be placed on the agenda for the Tuesday night PCSSD meeting, but so far their plea has fallen on deaf ears, meaning they may be allotted only five minutes each to speak during the public comment period of the meeting.

Kim Forrest, appointed earlier to be principal of the coeducational school, spoke out in favor of postponing the move to a coed middle school, and many believe it was her outspoken advocacy that resulted in her sudden transfer to Northwood Middle School.

Jacksonville officials, activists who want a stand-alone Jacksonville school district and at least most of the teachers from the boys school have spoken out in favor of the gender-specific education, at least for one more year to provide for a more orderly transfer.

Also, many believe that the widely anticipated stand-alone Jacksonville school board should make the decision.

Perry says he will reintroduce legislation in the next session providing for the recall of school-board members, a very thinly veiled threat to Vasquez’s tenure.

TOP STORY >> How shooting victim survived attack at LR recruiting station

Leader executive editor

Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula is limping around his home in Jacksonville with several bullet holes in his body and shrapnel in his lung, his neck and down his back.

A terrorist sprayed him with bullets Monday morning at an Army recruiting station in west Little Rock.

Ezeagwula, 18, survived by playing dead after he was shot. Pvt. William Long, 23, of Conway died from a single bullet wound. He will be buried Monday.

Ezeagwula, who graduated from Jacksonville High School last year, pulls up his T-shirt, and you can see his back is all shot up.

A visitor thought Ezeagwula would be in bed while he recovers from the gunshot wounds that nearly killed him. But this tough guy — a former Red Devils football player — doesn’t stay in bed much. He takes some pain pills and a nurse visits him daily to tend to his wounds.

Ezeagwula, who left the hospital on Thursday, talked about his ordeal as his family sat with him, just grateful that he’s alive.

“I’m thanking God he’s at home,” says his aunt, Vicki Jones.

Ezeagwula and Long were standing outside the recruiting station in Ashley Square Shopping Center near Rodney Parham Road when a dark pickup approached them as they took a smoke break.

“We’d been standing outside for five minutes,” Ezeagwula says, as he sits on a couch in the living room.

He and Long had worked there only for a week as temporary recruiters before they were supposed to head out for their next assignment. “He was really a nice guy,” Ezeagwula says.

At 10:19 a.m. Monday, Abdul-hakim Mujahid Muhammad, 24, aka Carlos Leon Bledsoe, reached for a cheap Chinese semiautomatic rifle and started firing.

Muhammad was saying something, but Ezeagwula couldn’t understand him.

Despite earlier reports, the two soldiers were not armed. Recruiters don’t carry weapons.

Ezeagwula doesn’t remember some of the details of the shooting. But his mother, Sonia, says that when Muhammad reached for his rifle, her son thought it was a prank.

“When he pulled out his gun, (Quinton) thought he was playing,” his mother says. “I had just dropped him off 20 minutes earlier.”

But Muhammad was deadly serious. He’d come to kill as many soldiers as he could gun down.

Long was shot first and was mortally wounded. He’d been shot once.

Ezeagwula was shot in his neck, back and buttocks. He tried to run, fell down and played dead.

“I was bleeding, but I didn’t think I was seriously hurt,” he says.

When Muhammad drove off, the Jacksonville teenager started crawling back toward the recruiting office.

As he lay wounded, he called his mother on his cell phone to tell her that he was all right, but she didn’t answer.

A sergeant came running out from the recruiting office. “He asked me if I was OK,” Ezeagwula said. “I told him I’d been shot.”

As they put Ezeagwula in an ambulance, the sergeant called the private’s mother to tell her that he’d been shot.

“Who would have thought something like that would happen at a recruiting station?” she asks.

“He’s a good son. He never was in a gang. He never stole for drugs. He stayed on a good path.”

The family has just moved into a new house and would have had to wait until Monday to get electricity, but Rep. Vic Snyder’s office had the power turned on a couple days ago.

“I’m just so glad to see this boy,” his mother says.

Ezeagwula is staying in the Army and is headed for Hawaii when he recovers.

“He wants to continue serving his country,” his mother says.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Sen. Baker’s showboating

State Senator Gilbert Baker is having trouble writing a constitutional amendment that he hopes might carry him to the U. S. Senate. That ought to be hard, if not impossible, to do. Manipulating the state’s fundamental law for political gain once got you nowhere, but it has become the go-to strategy for politicians and parties.

Jim Johnson circulated petitions in 1956 to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment requiring state officials to do everything possible to prevent the federal courts from integrating the public schools. The amendment passed, to be repealed by voters nearly 40 years later, but Johnson lost his simultaneous bid to be elected governor.

But for the past 20 years Republicans have put emotional issues on the general-election ballot that Republican candidates can rally around and get out the vote: abortion, gay marriage, gay adoptions and foster parenting. It has proven to be moderately effective in ramping up the vote for Republicans.

Union baiting looks like the strategy for 2010.

Baker, the former state Republican chairman who is pondering a race for the U S. Senate, filed a proposed constitutional amendment that he says would require elections by secret ballot before a company would have to bargain with a union. That would be in case Congress and the president change the federal labor rules to require employers to bargain with employees when most of them signed cards for a union to represent them on wages and benefits. The state Constitution in that eventuality would still protect the company from having to negotiate with its employees.

Of course, Baker does not describe his proposal in those terms. He says it’s all about protecting the employees by forever guaranteeing them the secret ballot. It is not about the secret ballot but about labor-management relations. Now, labor-management decisions rest entirely in the hands of the employer. No matter how many union requests that workers sign, the company decides if an election will be held and it dictates the terms. The union card-check bill pending (and doomed) in Congress would let a majority of workers decide if an election will be held or if there will be negotiations for a contract.

Twice, the attorney general has rejected Baker’s proposal. It is too ambiguous for voters to know what they are voting to do, he said. Baker and the group he says he represents, something called Save Our Secret Ballot in Arkansas, will get another chance to write an amendment that is clear and viable. As it was submitted, it might require elections in any number of situations.

If election by secret ballot is a sacrosanct way of transacting commercial activity, then indeed it should be forcibly applied to other commercial matters as well, perhaps the choosing of company directors and executive officers, the awarding of contracts and subsidiary relations. There is nothing about a wage contract that should make it subject to a secret ballot. It is one form of democratic expression, a fairly recent one, but not the only legitimate one.

A bigger hurdle for Baker is that nothing that he and corporate lawyers can write into the Arkansas Constitution will change the timeless rule of constitutional federalism. The federal government has pre-empted jurisdiction in labor-management relations. A congressional act, even a regulation of the National Labor Relations Board, pre-empts any contrary provision of the state Constitution. Baker’s amendment, if it is ratified, won’t alter the rules on bargaining that Congress lays down.

Arkansas learned that when the 1988 amendment prohibiting the use of public funds for abortions was invalidated after its first application because it ran afoul of federal regulations for Medicaid.

But that really is immaterial. Putting it on the ballot and giving candidates a chance to stand foursquare for the secret ballot and against union bosses are all that matter. The mere utterance of “union bosses” gets people’s blood boiling. The amendment is a means, not an end. Who cares whether the proposition carries or if it ever does anything?

TOP STORY >> Local man is tied to daring prison break

Leader staff writer

A Jacksonville man is one of three arrested by the State Police in connection with the escape of two convicted killers from the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Cummins Unit at Grady on Friday.

Michael Stephenson, 50, was arrested Saturday, along with Deanna Davison and Ryan McKinney, both of North Little Rock. All three were charged with a felony count of furnishing an implement of escape by leaving a 2003 Hyundai Sonata in the prison parking lot for the escapees to use in their getaway.

The State Police aren’t saying how the three knew the two escapees, Jeffrey Grinder, 32, and Calvin Adams, 39. Neither of the inmates seem to have any Jacksonville connections.

State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said the escape is still under investigation and it could take weeks before it’s completed.

Grinder and Adams walked out of the prison Friday wearing correctional officer uniforms that are made at Cummins, got into the Sonata and drove off shortly after the 6 p.m. head count. The pair was not noticed as missing until the 10 p.m. head count.

Authorities had leads over the weekend that the two were near Kalamazoo, Mich., and arrested them Tuesday in New York after they tried to speed away from police and crashed into a tree about 90 miles southeast of Buffalo.

The escapees were in the same car that had been left for them at the Cummins Unit prison.

Arkansas Correction Department spokeswoman Dina Tyler said the chase began when a New York trooper tried to stop the men’s car for speeding.

Both were caught after the car crashed and they tried to run away, she said. No one was hurt and neither man was armed.

According to police reports, the chase reached high speeds and went on for about 20 miles in Allegheny County in rural western New York, just north of the Pennsylvania state line.

Tyler said Monday that five guards at the Cummins Unit had been placed on unpaid leave while the department investigates the escape. She did not name the officers but said they were guarding the entry and exit points at the prison.

Adams, from Laetrile, was convicted in 1995 in the 1994 kidnapping and murder of Richard Austin, 25, a banker. Austin’s wife was wounded and walked more than a mile to summon help.

Grinder is from Yellville and was convicted of capital murder, aggravated robbery and burglary in the 2003 beating death of Pat Gardner, 77, who lived near Springdale.

TOP STORY >> A survivor in shooting doing well

Leader editor-in-chief

Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula, 18, who was a fullback and a linebacker for the Jacksonville Red Devils in 2007, is recovering from gunshot wounds after a terrorist attack Monday at an Army recruiting station in Little Rock.

Ezeagwula was shot three times as he stood outside the recruiting station with Pvt. William Long, 23, of Conway.

Long was shot several times and died later at Baptist Health Medical Center. Ezeagwula’s family is hoping the teenager makes a full recovery.

Tuesday, Ezeagwula’s Army buddies brought him a football to cheer him up and to remind him of the days when he played for the Red Devils and when terrorism was something that happened far away.

The soldiers couldn’t imagine they’d become victims of terrorism even before they headed overseas.

Members of our armed services know danger awaits them when they go to Iraq or Afghanistan — roadside bombs are a constant menace — but when you’re volunteering at an Army-Navy recruiting station, the last thing that crosses your mind is gunfire from a Muslim fanatic who’ll tell you his religion stands for peace while he mows you down.

Who knows, he might have shouted, “Allah is great” as he sped away.

Ezeagwula and Long were volunteering in the Army’s Hometown Recruiter Assistance program. They made easy targets as they took a break outside the recruiting office in Ashley Square Shopping Center near Rodney Parham Road when a dark pickup approached.

They had no idea that a convert to Islam, who had recently returned from Yemen, was looking for soldiers to kill.

Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, 24, aka Carlos Leon Bledsoe, shot several rounds from the back of the vehicle. He’d brought a cheap Chinese military rifle with him, similar to the one a Jacksonville man used last summer in a standoff with police in his home. That standoff ended when a police sharpshooter killed the man through a kitchen window.

Although Ezeagwula and Long may have been armed, they didn’t have time to defend themselves once the shooting started.

Muhammad said he would have shot others if they’d been outside with the others.

But this was no suicide mission: Muhammad didn’t dare leave his truck and storm the recruiting office, where he could have killed many other soldiers, but he, too, would have died in a hail of gunfire.

Instead, Muhammad fled, but he was soon arrested at the I-630 and I-30 interchange near downtown Little Rock.

He pleaded not guilty Tuesday to capital murder and terrorism, but he remained defiant. He said he was a devout Muslim who hated the military for what it was doing to Muslims overseas.

He recently changed his name from Carlos Leon Bledsoe, but the FBI was watching him because of his travels to the Middle East. He’d moved from Memphis to Little Rock, where he was looking for a military target.

On Monday, he’d found what he was looking for.

TOP STORY >> Cabot mayor to run for Senate

Leader staff writers

Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams announced Monday that he is running for the Dist. 28 Senate seat that Sen. Bobby Glover will vacate at the end of 2010.

Williams, a Republican, said running for the Senate next year instead of a second term as mayor was a matter of timing. Glover, a Democrat from Carlisle, is term limited in the office he has held since 2004.

Dist. 28 includes all of Lonoke and Prairie counties and parts of Pulaski and Arkansas counties.

If he is elected, Williams says he will be the same type of approachable public servant that Glover has been.

“I will build on his reputation as a constituent senator,” the mayor said.

Former House Speaker Benny Petrus, D-Stuttgart, said Tuesday that he was “leaning toward getting in the race.”

“I’m going to sit down with my family and make a decision by the first of August,” Petrus said. “If we do it, we’re going to get after it. It will be feet to the pavement.”

“I’ve been encouraged by a lot of people,” Petrus added.

“I’ve got the [legislative] experience,” he said. “So much knowledge of how the process works. But I’ve got to get committed myself.”

Petrus said if he decided against running, he would back his friend, former state Rep. Lenville Evans, D-Lonoke.

Evans, reached on a tractor planting soybeans Tuesday, said he was considering a run for Glover’s seat, but that there were several considerations, including whether or not Petrus seeks the office.

Glover said Monday that he would not endorse a candidate, at least not in the primary. He also said he had decided not to run for secretary of state, in part because he’s not fully recovered from his stroke last summer.

He said he would be open to further service to the people if he were appointed to the state Highway Commission or the state Corrections Board.

In an interview Monday, Williams called Glover one of the best friends Cabot has ever had and credited the senator with help on some of the major projects that have been started since he became mayor in January 2007, especially funding for the armory that will be built in Cabot.

Williams’ prepared statement did not include his affiliation with the Republican Party.

“I’ll work for everyone as an individual, not as a party,” he said. “Being there when your constituents need you is more important.”

To stave off critics who might say he hasn’t given enough to Cabot yet to move on to a state office, Williams says it’s possible to stay in a position too long, that he has gone at “mach speed” ever since he took office and he has accomplished a lot.

“It’s not about how long; it’s what you do while you’re there,” Williams said.

Traffic has been on top of Williams’ list of priorities since he took over as mayor. He has worked with the state and county on road projects that have eased traffic congestion somewhat.

The city was at least $400,000 in debt so the budget was also a major concern. Now, mainly through staff cuts, the city has about $2 million more than is necessary to run the city at the current level.

Additionally, a $775,000 health department clinic is under construction and an $8.2 million armory should be started this year.

The $7.2 million railroad overpass that Williams started working for about 10 years ago while he was on the Cabot City Council is near completion.

If elected, Williams will continue to work for federal funding for a north interchange estimated to cost about $20 million.

Williams, 54, grew up in Sheridan. He has been married for 37 years and has three daughters, six grandsons and one granddaughter.

He worked for the railroad for 30 years, starting as a laborer and working up to regional director of transportation. He retired when he was elected mayor.

Asked how he would deal with being only one of many senators instead of the top official, Williams said he realized that his role would be different from what it is now. But he said he would become a consensus builder.

“People need someone to represent them at the state level,” he said.

Williams, who announced his intentions to run for mayor almost four years before he was elected, said he won’t start campaigning until 2010.

Randy Minton of Ward, a former state representative and a Republican, had been rumored as a candidate for the state Senate, but Minton said this week that he will not run and that he has offered his support to the mayor.

Minton, who once coveted the seat held by Glover, said, “I’m going to support Eddie Joe. Eddie Joe is the best chance the Republican Party has to take that seat.”

His unsuccessful race for an open House seat last year against Davy Carter was the reason for his decision, Minton said.

Minton said that he’s not running because of “the outcome of the last election” for state representative, which he lost to Carter (R-Cabot), 1,388 to 1,066. Also, “I’ve had some changes in my business and it takes a lot of time.”

Petrus, who owns both a Chrysler/Ford dealership and a General Motors/Buick dealership in Stuttgart, said although these are difficult times for car dealers, “We didn’t get any letters” from Chrysler or GM telling Petrus to close down.

Lonoke County prosecutor Will Feland also has been named as a possible candidate.

Feland, who was appointed as prosecutor last year after Lona McCastlain resigned, said his new job is consuming all his time now. He isn’t saying he won’t run, Feland said, but it is too soon to say one way or the other.

TOP STORY >> Fletcher winner in runoff

Click inside box to enlarge view

Leader staff writer

Alderman Gary Fletcher will be the new mayor of Jacksonville.

It was his third try for that job.

Fletcher jumped out to a 105-vote lead in the early voting and never relinquished the reins, beating Alderman Kenny Elliott, 1,367 votes or 54.8 percent to 1,142 votes or 45.2 percent.

The runoff election contradicted the norm by bringing out more voters than the original election — a six-candidate race held May 12.

Fletcher was the front-runner in that election where 2,437 votes were cast, garnering 39 percent of the vote to Elliott’s 32 percent.

The winner thanked his supporters outside his campaign headquarters at Crestview Plaza. Fletcher called his election a grassroots effort and credited his supporters for carrying him to victory.

“The people here is why this happened,” Fletcher said, pointing to his supporters as they laughed, applauded and ate barbecue.
“I’m just overwhelmed. It’s been a long four months.”

“I just want to be the people’s servant,” Fletcher said.

He praised his opponent for running a positive campaign. “Kenny is a class act,” Fletcher said. “Kenny and I showed politics don’t have to be gutter politics.”

“These people came as volunteers and took over the campaign,” he said in an interview. “They put up yard signs and went door to door.”

Fletcher said he, too, knocked on many doors. “I sat down with people house to house,” he said. “I was being Gary. They told me they expected a lot from me.”

Elliott called Fletcher early Tuesday evening and congratulated him on the win. “As an alderman and a resident of Jacksonville I will continue to work hard for the city,” he said.

Elliott felt good about the campaign he ran and said both he and Fletcher ran very positive campaigns. “I feel good about the issues that were raised. We worked hard, but Gary came out on top and I congratulate him,” he said.

Elliott also wanted to thank all of his supporters.

Mayor Tommy Swaim, who is resigning July 1 in the middle of his term, called Fletcher to congratulate him on his victory.
“If there’s anything I can do, let me know,” Swaim told him.

Swaim said he would “work as hard as I can to make the transition as smooth as possible” and between now and June 30 he’ll continue to do his job.

Fletcher won five of the eight polling sites, losing to Elliott at Chapel Hills Baptist Church, the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club and Berea Baptist Church.

At an earlier candidates forum sponsored by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce between the special election, May 12, and Tuesday’s runoff, Fletcher said the “choice is not between good and bad. We are both good people. If you want the city to continue in the direction it’s been going, then vote for Elliott, but if you want a change and someone with a clear vision, vote for me.”

When asked at the forum if the mayor should be leading the charge for a separate school district for the city, Fletcher said, “The mayor is the head of the city and has to be up in front on this issue and not take a wait-and-see attitude. We’ve been reactive too long. It’s time to take the bull by the horns,” he said.

Fletcher has said that he wants to create an education commission and fund it with city money as a war chest to get the new district going. “We need to let the county district know we are serious,” he explained.

“We’ve got to push for our schools. The schools are the heartbeat of our community,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher was concerned about the recent brouhaha over the city’s boy’s and girl’s middle school. “I’m upset with the district and don’t feel they have a clue how to give us a quality education. Every day that these problems persist is another day that it hurts our children.”

Fletcher is displeased with the move of administrators and the middle school students back under one roof. “That building is undersized and not up to code,” he said.

Fletcher had said that as mayor he would offer the district an olive branch. “I want to play nice, but if they continue not to listen to us, we can play hardball with the best of them. I don’t want that to sound like a threat, but there are things we can do,” he said.

Fletcher said the issue of the Graham Road closing needs revisiting.

“I don’t ever remember seeing an economic study and we all know what happened economically. Closing that crossing has hurt a lot of people. We need to push and see exactly what it would cost us. I can’t see them making us pay all the money back,” he said.

Fletcher said that years ago there was talk about curving Main Street into Graham Road. “We need to look at that again. We’ve got a $4 million overpass and will soon have a $7 million improved Graham Road with two one way streets in the middle.

Traffic needs to flow,” he said at the forum.

Fletcher also wants to annex north up Hwy. 67/167 to the Lonoke County line. “Sure there’s some businesses there we may not want in our city, but the best way to make sure we don’t get more of them is to annex the area,” he said.

Fletcher added that Cabot has already come south to the county line and that by going north, the city could work with Cabot.

Fletcher first ran for mayor when he was 28 in 1982 against Mayor James Reid and lost. Again in 1986 he lost to Reid in a primary by 30 votes. Reid lost to independent candidate Swaim, who has been mayor ever since.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

SPORTS >> Bruins close tournament with 8-7 win

Leader sports editor

Sylvan Hills Optimist junior Legion team salvaged a win in the Gwatney Chevrolet Tournament on Sunday at Burns Park.

The Bruins opened with losses to Sheridan and Gwatney, but took advantage of Benton’s generosity on Sunday to post an 8-7 victory and a fifth-place finish.

Benton pitching issued six walks, hit two more and committed three errors, allowing the Bruins to score their eight runs on only six hits. Sylvan Hills was in a giving mood, too, issuing seven walks and hitting two, while committing three errors. But Sylvan Hills got the victory when Cain Cormier singled in Justin Cook as time expired in the 2-hour time limit game.

Cook opened the fifth inning of a 7-7 tie by lining his first offering into right for a single and Forrest Harrison singled him to third. One out later, Cormier hit a sharp single through the hole at shortstop.

Sylvan Hills grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first after Lance Hunter reached on an error and came around on Blake Rasdon’s RBI single. But two walks, an infield single and a throwing error produced a pair of runs and a 2-1 Benton lead in the second.

The Bruins tied it in the bottom half on three walks and a wild pitch.

But Sylvan Hills returned the favor in the third with three walks and a wild pitch and Benton temporarily led 3-2.

Hunter got things going for the Bruins in the bottom of the third with a walk, and Trey Sims, on in relief of Rasdon-in the third, delivered a pinch hit single. Michael Lock was hit with a pitch to load the bases and the Bruins tied it when Cook drew a walk. Both Austin Spears and Lock scored when Will Carter reached on a throwing error. Cook scored on a wild pitch to give Sylvan Hills a 6-3 lead.

But Benton took advantage of two Sylvan Hills errors and a pair of singles to narrow the gap to 6-5 in the fourth. Brian Chastain singled leading off for the Bruins in the bottom half of the inning and eventually scored on Sims’ sacrifice fly.

Sims ran into trouble in the fifth, hitting a batter and giving up a single to start the inning. Spears, the Bruins’ first baseman, made a nifty play on a sacrifice bunt attempt, charging and throwing across to third to get the lead runner. But two walks, a sacrifice fly and a wild pitch tied the game at 7.

Spears came on with two outs and the go-ahead run at second and got a fly out to end the inning. Spears picked up the win after facing just one batter.

Cormier, Chastain, Rasdon, Sims, Cook and Harrison had one hit each. Cook scored three times.

SPORTS >> New head coach Russell putting program in place at North Pulaski

Leader sports editor

Rick Russell is probably hoping the month of June isn’t quite as hectic as May.

The new North Pulaski football coach spent all of last month attending to his teaching duties at Jacksonville High School before heading to North Pulaski in the afternoons for Falcon spring football.

Russell, a long-time defensive coordinator at Jacksonville, took over the head coaching job at North Pulaski on May 1 when he replaced seven-year head coach Tony Bohannon. The job was already a challenging one, given the Falcons’ 5-65 record over the past seven years. It became even more challenging with Russell’s ongoing duties at Jacksonville High School. Then, Russell found out that due to a scheduling problem, the players who showed up for spring football wouldn’t be getting their physicals until the last week in June. That meant no contact during spring practice, which just concluded last week.

None of that seemed to faze Russell, who sounded enthusiastic about the turnout, both in terms of numbers and quality.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” he said. “It’s been a good experience getting to know the kids. I’ve been kind of busy, teaching at one school and rushing to the other school. But I’m really pleased with having 50 coming out. Especially with a new coach and with not having an athletic period. It showed commitment by the kids to be willing to come out after school.”

Russell said that not being able to have contact really didn’t slow down the Falcons’ progress much because there was already so much new stuff to put in place. He compared the two weeks of spring football to the first three days of August football, when contact is also limited.

“We were in helmets and shoulder pads and we were able to do a lot of drill work,” he said. “We saw them run, saw how they moved, how they lined up and pursued. We were able to see them throw and catch and cover each other. We saw a lot of things we needed to see.”

Russell was especially excited about the athleticism in his secondary and by the pursuit and movement of the entire defense.

He credited secondary and running backs coach Terrod Hatcher with the progress the defense has made.

On offense, the big factor will be how well a mostly new offensive line develops. The Falcons lost a big group up front and will focus more on smaller, speedier linemen this fall.

“It’s hard to replace those big kids on the offensive line,” he said. “We’re working on strength and quickness.”

North Pulaski lost two-year starter A.J. Allen at quarterback as well as all-purpose threat Jerald Blair. But three sophomore running backs return to join football newcomer DaQuan Bryant, a talented athlete who helped lead the North Pulaski basketball team to a berth in the 5A state title game in March.

“DaQuan is a college prospect in both sports,” Russell said. “He’s got the body that you want and for a guy carrying 200 pounds, he moves great.”

Juniors-to-be Darius Cage, Billy Barron and Bryan Coulson are all back to help shore up the backfield. Sophomore Shyheim Barron took the most snaps at quarterback this spring. Russell said Shyheim is athletic and visualizes the field extremely well and that he can throw the ball downfield.

Russell said the Falcons would run out of multiple sets on offense, including a Veer option and two- and three-back power sets.

North Pulaski has most of the coaching staff in place, though Russell said he still has one position to fill.

Strength and endurance were key priorities when Russell took over last month. Thus far he’s happy with the progress.

“We’re on schedule,” he said. “We’re emphasizing muscle endurance through three basic lifts — the clean, the squat and the bench press. We should be able to make the increases throughout the summer as planned.”

Russell has scrapped plans to participate in the Pulaski Robinson 7-on-7 tournament next week. Instead, the team will practice Mondays and Thursdays through July and will participate in a 7-on-7 scrimmage against Cabot on July 15.

SPORTS >> New Lonoke basketball coach has history of winning

Leader sportswriter

Lonoke High School wasted little time in filling the head basketball coach’s position left vacant by former coach Wes Swift, who resigned last month to take over at Jonesboro.

Dean Campbell, who has been a varsity assistant and junior high coach the past three years, was named the new head coach by athletic director Mark Hobson.

Campbell has an extensive resume, including a stint as head coach at Central Arkansas Christian from 2002-04. He did his graduate work at Southwest Baptist College in Bolivar, Mo., from 1994-97 before joining the staff as an assistant at Coffeeville Community College in Kansas. He worked at West Texas A & M as a women’s assistant for two years before moving to CAC, which shared a conference with Swift and the Jackrabbits. He worked for two years in the Pulaski County Special School District before making the move to Lonoke.

He was able to take the Mustangs from a nine-year drought in state tournament berths to the 3A tourney in his second season.

“I think I know what it takes to put a program that has hasn’t been successful and get it going on the right track again,” said Campbell. “But I’m in a situation where Lonoke has a long tradition, and it’s been a smooth transition for the kids. That’s the most important part.”

A Kansas native, Campbell began his college-playing career at Coffeyville for two years as a shooting guard before finishing at Whalen Baptist in Texas. He grew up in the community of Tyro and attended high school at Caney Valley.

His marriage to Jacksonville native DeAnna 17 years ago brought him to Arkansas. They have two children, 10-year-old Regan and Riley, 6.

Campbell joined the Lonoke staff in 2006.

“We competed against Lonoke, and through talking with coach Swift, I learned that they had a position open,” Campbell said.

“It was a good opportunity for me to be able to coach a junior high team and still be able to work with a high-school team.”

For A.D. Hobson, the choice was a no-brainer.

“We didn’t open the job,” said Hobson, who also had to replace departing football coach Jeff Jones with Doug Bost in March. “We liked the job that coach Campbell has done with our junior high program enough that we thought he was the best guy for the job. It’s not over, we still have to replace his position, and we also have to fill a position for girls assistant coach.”
Campbell said he and Swift enjoyed a good chemistry, though the two have different demeanors.

“As far as disciple, kids playing hard and being as fundamental as you can be, I will try to continue that style,” said Campbell.

“I’m not as fiery as coach Swift, but he and I were a good mix. His knowledge of defense and my offensive approach worked together well, and I think he knew that ahead of time. It also led to a lifetime relationship for both of us.

“He is excited. I’ve never seen him as intense and motivated. I think it will be a good marriage between him and the Jonesboro program.”

SPORTS >> Gwatney settles for third place

Leader sports editor

Gwatney Chevrolet bounced back from an opening-round loss to Sheridan to post wins over Sylvan Hills and Maumelle and finish third in the Gwatney Chevrolet Tournament last weekend at Burns Park.

In the third-place game on Sunday, Gwatney wasted leadoff base runners in the first and second before erupting for five runs in the third and eight in the fourth to demolish Maumelle 13-3. Gwatney collected 11 of its 13 hits over the final two innings of the four-inning affair.

Devon McClure led the way with three hits and three RBI. He also picked up the victory, allowing three hits and one earned run over three innings of work. He struck out five.

Gwatney busted open a scoreless tie when it sent nine to plate in the third inning, scoring five of them. Orlando Roberts grounded a single to left and Jacob Abrahamson looped a single into center. After a wild pitch moved the runners up to second and third, McClure ripped a two-run single to right to put Gwatney up 2-0. The onslaught was just beginning.

Patrick Castleberry singled home McClure and eventually scored himself on the back end of a double steal.

Chris McClendon walked and Nick Rodriguez was hit with a pitch. Jesse Harbin drove in McClendon with a base hit and Gwatney led 5-0. After pitching out of a pair of jams in the first and second innings, McClure was touched for a run in the third, but it might have been worse. A double, two walks and a wild pitch made it 5-1. Rodriguez, the Gwatney catcher threw a runner out at the plate after another wild pitch and McClure got a strikeout to stop further damage.

Gwatney began an 8-run rally in the fourth after the first batter was retired. Abrahamson walked, McClure singled and Castleberry delivered them both with a single to center. McClendon walked and, with two outs, Zach Traylor singled in two more runs.

Harbin singled and Michael Lamb was hit with a pitch to load the bases. Roberts drew a bases-loaded walk to force in Traylor.
Abrahamson followed with a two-run single and McClure drove in another run with a base hit to make it 13-1.

Traylor came on in relief of McClure in the fourth. Two walks and two singles produced a pair of runs. But McClendon at third base recorded the final two outs of the game.

Castleberry had two hits and three RBI, while Abrahamson went 2 for 2 with two runs and two RBI. Harbin had two hits and an RBI, and Traylor drove in a pair of runs with a base hit.

Gwatney was slated to host North Little Rock last night in a game played after Leader deadlines.

Monday, June 01, 2009

TOP STORY >> More to stay behind bars

Leader senior staff writer

By mid-June, the Pulaski County Detention Center should expand to legally accommodate 980 prisoners.

The increase will be 100 more than the current cap, but not enough to legally hold the 1,015 prisoners locked up one morning this week, according to John Rehrauer, spokesman for Pulaski County Sheriff Doc Holladay.

The Pulaski County Quorum Court authorized the increase Tuesday night. The jail’s capacity was reduced from 1,130 to 800 after the roof collapsed in 2005 above jail Pods A and B.

Capacity was increased in recent years to 880 with the help primarily from North Little Rock and Little Rock. Their police departments arrest the majority of the prisoners.

Of those 880 inmates, 100 considered nonviolent were housed in the old work-release center now called the satellite center.

When the pods were repaired and repainted early this year, those inmates and their jailers were transferred to those pods without increasing jail capacity. Renovations cost about $600,000.

But the sheriff can’t add 250 inmates to fill the satellite center unless the county can pay for the additional guards, medical costs, food and utilities for them.

The sheriff’s office has been training 27 new jailers with the intention of reopening 100 beds in the work- release center once they complete the seven-week course, according to a spokesman.

That will increase the jail’s capacity to 980 by the middle of June.

The quorum court had appropriated $1.3 million to train and pay the extra jailers required to operate the new pods and also 100 beds of the work-release center.

The jail pods are within the fenced secure area of the detention center, while the satellite center is not.

Holladay said that once the satellite center is completely reopened, the moves would increase jail capacity by 250 beds without a bond-issue or tax increase.

Holladay said he hoped to open the remaining 150 beds of the work-release center as funds become available.

When those beds become available, jail capacity will return to its 2005 capacity of 1,130.

“It doesn’t solve all our problems, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Rehrauer said.

Any additional jail beds beyond that would require new construction and a new source of revenue, perhaps a tax increase, Rehrauer said.

To operate all 250 beds in the satellite center would cost the county $2.7 million a year in additional deputies, food, medical costs and utilities.

Most studies, including an extensive study conducted by former UALR Chancellor Charles Hathaway, say the county needs between 1,500 and 1,600 beds.

Pulaski County residents turned down several tax increases sought in recent years to build new capacity for the detention center.