Leader Blues

Monday, July 30, 2007

TOP STORY >>Two hopefuls face off in Sherwood contest

By RICK KRON
Leader staff writer

By 9:30 p.m. Tuesday the unofficial word should come from the Pulaski Election Commission as to who is the new mayor of Sherwood: City Clerk Virginia Hillman, 43, or Interim Mayor Bill Harmon, 80.

The pair ended up in a virtual dead heat out of five candidates in the July 10 special mayoral election to fill the spot vacated by Mayor Danny Stedman when he resigned in early April for health reasons. But Hillman came in first.

The city council quickly appointed Harmon, the former mayor, to fill in until an election could fill the seat.

More than 100 residents have already voted at the Jack Evans Senior Center and another two dozen at the Pulaski County Courthouse. Early voting will continue at the courthouse only on Monday.

Regular voting will take place from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at polling sites across Sherwood.

Hillman bested Harmon by 10 votes in the July 10 election, but neither was able to get 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

With all 10 precincts reporting, Hillman collected 1,252 votes, or 32.4 percent, followed by Harmon with 1,242 votes or 32.2 percent.

Two of the other former candidates, Doris Anderson and Victor Sierra, have officially announced their support for Hillman. “She is a woman of the highest integrity and will lead this city forward,” Anderson said.

Richard Devine, also a former candidate, has not publicly backed either candidate.

Hillman has worked for the city for 21 years, and was first appointed to city clerk/treasurer in 2001, when Bobbie Chapman retired and was then elected to that position in 2002 and won re-election in 2006.

Harmon has served 10 years as a city alderman, then 14 years as mayor, opting to retire rather than run again in 2006.
Both candidates answered a number of questions posed to them by The Leader. Their answers have not been changed. Hillman is listed first because she filed her candidacy first.

Q: Whether the city should or should not buy North Hills Golf Course continues to be a hot issue.  With the recommendation of the “blue ribbon” committee in and at least one lawsuit filed--what do you think the city should do in this issue?

Hillman: Generally speaking, citizens do not feel that they have had a voice in this decision. A proposal should be developed for the use of the property, along with a funding mechanism, and placed on the ballot for the people to decide.

At this time, the city is not financially able to purchase and maintain the property as a public golf course without an increase in tax or a decrease of services in other areas. Both the feasibility study and the appraisal indicate that the property, as well as existing structures, is in need of repairs in order to continue as a golf course.

City leaders should have considered purchasing the property in the past when the offer was much less. The 105 acres would be a nice asset, as well as an investment, if the city had the finances to purchase the property.

Expecting the current property owners to sell the property for one-half of what they have recently been offered does not seem fair nor is it good business. I would not appreciate being forced to sell my home for $100,000 if I had already had a valid offer of $200,000. The current lawsuit, with perhaps a second one pending, could be costly to the city.

Harmon: Ever since the prospective development of the North Hills Country Club Pro-perty was first announced, I’ve felt it would be a tragedy to lose this 105 acres or irreplaceable green space and 100-year-old oak trees in the middle of our city.
However, I’ve become even more committed to trying to save this green space since it was revealed by our city engineer that the development of this property for housing would cost the city well over $2 million in street and drainage improvements. Whether as a golf course, park or some combination of both, this green space is far too valuable to our citizens to let it slip away. Among possible uses for part of the property would be a water park, which is a concept with which other cities in our area have had great success.

We could also use the building as a multi-use facility to handle the overflow we frequently have to turn away at Sherwood Forest.

Another fact people have to keep in mind when considering the possible development of this green space is that what the developer proposes to build, and what is actually built, are often two different things. Once a property is zoned R-1 residential, its owner can construct anything he wants on that property that complies with that zoning classification, subject of course to the city’s building codes and subdivision rules and regulations.

Q: Related to the golf course issue,  do you feel the building moratorium on that property  was the right move for the city and how should the city move forward in continuing the moratorium or canceling it?

 Hillman: While the moratorium may have been the right legal avenue, I do not believe that it was an ethical one.  As municipal government, I do not believe that we have the power to control property that we do not own other than for public safety reasons.  Negotiations must begin to resolve the issue.  The current property owners need to regain right of their property.

Harmon: This matter is the subject of a lawsuit, so on advice of our city attorney I have to be very careful in addressing this issue.

Obviously I feel the moratorium serves the best interests of the citizens of Sherwood at this time or I would have sought to have it repealed. We needed time to address the feasibility and financing of any possible purchase of the golf course property, as well as to try and determine the will of the Sherwood people.

I believe that once the lawsuit on this issue has been resolved, everyone will see that this was the best course of action, and the city of Sherwood will prevail.

  Q: The golf course aside, what do you think are the most important issues facing Sherwood and how would you handle those issues?

Hillman: Sherwood has a great reputation of public safety. With the population growth in Sherwood, more officers are needed on the streets for visibility.

The presence of officers on the streets is a proven crime deterrent. There are many streets within the city in need of improvements. Brockington Road has been funded for many years but construction is yet to begin.

It is time to relieve the traffic congestion of the northern portion of the city and widen Brockington Road. The city has recently annexed approximately 2,000 acres north of Gravel Ridge. As this area develops, Brockington will carry even more traffic.

Harmon: First I believe that the problem with the increased electric rates from North Little Rock Electric, and the pending case against that utility to confirm Sherwood’s right to choose its own utility provider, is our most urgent issue facing many Sherwood citizens. I will continue to aggressively pursue that case and a resolution that results in lower electric rates for our citizens.

Also, because Sherwood is easily the best city in Arkansas and one of the best in the country, in which to live and raise a family, many people and businesses want to be a part of our city. This is a good problem to have, but a problem nevertheless.

We have to continue to update our land use planning and our zoning ordinance to make certain we have orderly growth, and we must continue to pursue our existing plans for street improvements. I also feel we have to continue to offer top notch police and fire protection, especially as our city continues to grow.

Our low crime rate, great fire protection, top-notch medical care and variety of public and private school choices, along with the fact that we have the lowest taxes for our citizens of any first-class city in central Arkansas, are what make Sherwood so attractive as a hometown.

Q: More than 6,000 Sherwood homes are provided electricity by North Little Rock which not long ago increased its rates by nearly 40 percent. What can you do to help maintain quality and affordable electricity to city residents?

Hillman: As a city government, we must explore the high cost of electrical service currently being charged to our residents.  Other sources must be explored.  It is unrealistic to determine that this can be accomplished within a short period of time.  A new provider must negotiate infrastructure costs of the existing equipment owned by North Little Rock Electric.  This is possible and work must begin.  The rate increases were announced last year but no negotiations appear to have been acted upon by our current administration.

Harmon: I previously authorized the filing of a lawsuit against North Little Rock Electric to address this issue, and as I’ve mentioned before, will continue to aggressively pursue this case so that Sherwood can choose its own utility provider and obtain lower electric rates for its citizens. The court date set for this case is in January 2008, and we are continuing to try and move that date up or otherwise come to a quicker resolution.

I consider this a top priority.

Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Sherwood?

Hillman: Sherwood is a wonderful place to live. The reputation within the city is that of a safe hometown. We cannot ignore that the crime rate has increased within the past few years. If we ever lose our reputation of a safe community, it will be very difficult to regain.

Our fire department has worked very hard to earn a very low ISO rating. We have seen good teamwork within the fire department as the two departments worked to merge a few years ago. The next step of progression should probably be moving toward a fully operated municipal fire department.

Harmon: Some of the major strengths of our city are our terrific police force and low crime rate; terrific fire protection, which has resulted in one of the lowest ISO classifications for insurance in the state; and the fact that among cities of the first class in central Arkansas, we have the lowest taxes for our citizens.

With four private schools inside or immediately adjacent to our city limits, and some of the best facilities that the Pulaski County Special School District has to offer, our educational opportunities for our children are also a big strength.

However, all of this said, our biggest strength is our people. Sherwood is a city of good, honest, hard working people who care about their families and community.

Our biggest weakness is easily the situation with the electric rates being charged a majority of our citizens by North Little Rock Electric.

Q: The issue of a new apartment complex is being debating at the moment. Does the city need more apartments or does it already have too many? How should the city proceed to offer proper housing for an influx of new citizens?

Hillman: The city of Sherwood appears to have a high ratio per capita of apartments.  However, the need should be defined by supply and demand.  In regards to proper housing for new citizens, there are plenty of new homes on the market here in Sherwood.

Harmon: We need to be very judicious in allowing apartment development. Apartments offer a different lifestyle than many Sherwood residents are accustomed to, but they are an important source of housing to many young people starting out, as well as many mobile-career people, such as the military.

Multi-family housing can also be useful as a buffer between commercial property and single-family housing. However, I believe we have to be very careful not to allow so many apartment units as to cause excessive competition, resulting in high vacancy rates and reduced rental rates. We simply cannot allow more apartments than are necessary to accommodate the needs of our population. 

Q: Without being negative toward the other opponent, what makes you better to serve Sherwood and its residents as mayor?
Hillman: I believe that I am well qualified with 21 years of Sherwood municipal government experience and am capable of bringing a fresh approach to Sherwood city government.

Harmon: My family and I have lived in Sherwood for 43 years. My wife, Marvelle, and I raised four children in Sherwood. We have both been actively involved in our community, our schools and in First Baptist Church, where we’ve been members for almost 40 years.

I served as a member of the city council for 10 years prior to being elected mayor in 1993. I have seen many things change in Sherwood over the years, but one thing that has not changed is my commitment to serve. I believe I have grown with the job of mayor, and am extremely proud of the record of accomplishments for our city during my administration. I hope the people of Sherwood will value my experience and see fit to allow me to continue that record of accomplishment.

Q:  What have you been doing to make sure your supporters get out Tuesday and vote for you?

Hillman: We continue to knock on doors to get the message out as well as word of mouth.

Harmon: We have initiated a program of contacting voters again, since the first election, and asking for their support, as well as reminding them to get out and vote.

I feel that personal contact is the best way to reach people, and I’m so grateful to the numerous volunteers that have been going the extra mile, helping me contact as many voters as possible and ask for their support.

Q: Any final words or thoughts?

Hillman: I am excited about the upcoming runoff on Tuesday and I look forward to the high possibility of becoming the next mayor of Sherwood.

Harmon: I want to say that I am humbled by the support and good wishes of the people of Sherwood, both during this campaign and in the past.

As I have stated before, we have a record of accomplishment during my 14 years as mayor for which I am very proud, and I have a vision for so much more that we can accomplish, if elected.

Sherwood is a great city because it has great people, and I hope to continue working on behalf of those people.