Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

TOP STORY >> Big crowd hears from candidates for mayor

By RICK KRON
Leader staff writer

Close to 300 residents listened to five of six candidates talk Monday evening about their goals and visions for Jacksonville and why residents should vote for them.

The only candidate not at the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored forum was Randy “Doc” Rhodd, who had a death in his family.

Each candidate was given seven minutes to talk to the overflow crowd. After their opening segment, the candidates mingled with the crowd taking questions from individuals and small groups.

Beckie Brooks summed it up for all the candidates during her segment. “We all love the city, we all want to make it a better place and we all want to be vigilant of Little Rock Air Force Base, which is the lifeblood of our city, and we all know the importance of having good schools.”

With all that in common, what was different about each candidate?

Brooks focused on the fact that she has never been elected or appointed to any government post, but that she was an “active taxpayer.”

Tommy Dupree pushed his lifelong involvement in the community starting back in 1963 by building homes. “We got the city going. There were no major builders in the city until we came along,” he said, adding that he was in some way instrumental in more than 50 percent of the industry and commercial businesses in the city.

Jody Urquhart pushed a separate school district, saying he was “truly behind this community getting its own district. Educational opportunities is what will bring people here,” he said.

Alderman Kenny Elliott pushed his leadership background as a member of the city council and his work with the Boys and Girls Club. “I am fully qualified to lead this city,” Elliott said, adding that he’s lived in Jacksonville all his life and planned to be a part of the city for the rest of his life.

Alderman Gary Fletcher also mentioned his nearly 31 years on the city council, but placed more emphasis on his empathy and ability to take on people’s problems.

“Sure I can talk to you about all the ordinances and resolutions I’ve been involved in, but, bottom line, we are in the people business,” he said. Fletcher was the only candidate to mention the need for more annexation.

Dupree was the only one to tout a commission to oversee the city’s police, fire and emergency services departments.

Brooks wants a citizens’ advisory panel to oversee the city’s policies and practices.

Elliott wants often traffic-jammed Vandenberg Boulevard revamped before the nearby joint education center is opened.

Urquhart stayed on his theme of better schools and giving his and everyone’s children a good education so they can have a better life.

Brooks and Elliott took opposing views on reopening the Graham Road railroad crossing, which some residents say has hastened the demise of the Sunnyside area.

“It’s a controversial topic,” Brooks said, “but it needs to be reopened in some fashion. Just drive from this side of town to that side and it’s not the same.”

Elliott, responding to a question from the audience, said he has looked into the situation, and “there is no way we can legally open that crossing without paying back the money.” The money he is referring to is the $3 million it took to build the Main Street overpass.

In her segment, Brooks went on to say, “At least two of the other candidates have been in city government for a long time. Why haven’t they been able to provide solutions to some of the city’s problems?”

She also told the crowd that she wants to produce a small-business directory and put one in every resident’s hands so they may shop Jacksonville first. Brooks also wants to see stronger programs for the elderly, and would have liked the residents to have voted on the 2-cent hamburger tax and wished the city’s 1-cent sales tax had a sunset clause.

Dupree, like all of the candidates, is for a separate school district.

“We’ve never had enough representation north of the river,” adding that even when his father was on the county school board “only two of the six members were from this side of the river,” he said.

“We’re always getting outvoted,” he added. Dupree wants the state Highway Department to fast-track the work being done on Hwy. 67/167. He said at the current rate, it will take 15 to 30 years. “I’d like to expedite that down to about seven years,” Dupree said.

He said there were too many accidents and lives lost on the highway and that causes many people to choose to live elsewhere.

Dupree provided State Police data that showed that there have been nearly 1,000 accidents in the 4.7-mile stretch from Kiehl Avenue to Vandenberg Boulevard from 2004 through 2006, including six fatalities.

Why the commission?

Dupree said the city has 14 commissions and eight committees, but none of them are over the police, fire and emergency services.

“I believe in oversight. The more people involved the more eyes we have,” he said.
The commission, according to Dupree, would work with department heads to monitor and set policy.

Urquhart took a look back at how the community has always come together over the past 20 years. “Everything we’ve done has been fantastic,” he said. “When the library was falling down, we went and built a new one, a showplace. When the swimming pool was beyond repair, we went out and built an aquatic park,” Urquhart said. But he added that it’s not those things that will bring residents to Jacksonville — it is a strong educational system.

He said, “Many people come into the city and see the blighted schools and hear about the problems and think Jacksonville doesn’t put forth the money or the effort.”

“A key to maintain Little Rock Air Force Base is getting its men and women back in the community and that can only be done with better schools,” he said.

“We lose those folks before they come here,” he said. “They want to educate their children elsewhere.”

Urquhart said that the city must change its path, and that it needs a new leader and a new direction. “We have to create a reason for our children and grandchildren to stay or return to Jacksonville. Do you want them eight miles down the road or two blocks away?”

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

He wants to get the word out that Jacksonville is the retirement center of central Arkansas.

Fletcher said the top issues for the community are education and the air base.

In a question regarding rising crime in Jacksonville, Fletcher said he recently met with the police chief and told him that he’d like to clean up the city within two years.

“Chief, you are going to tell me how we are going to do it,” he said.

Fletcher added that the city has a marvelous police department and the problem isn’t with them. “We are catching them,” he said, referring to lawbreakers.

Elliott said he wants to attract businesses and restaurants to fill the city’s empty buildings. The city and chamber need to work together on this, he said. Elliott also wants to create a volunteerism committee to tap into all of the city’s talent.

With so many candidates in the race, the chamber predicts there’ll be a runoff and plans to sponsor another forum between the two candidates in that runoff.

The election is set for May 12, and if there is a runoff it will be three weeks later.