Leader Blues

Friday, April 10, 2009

TOP STORY >> Mayoral hopefuls air views

Leader staff writer

Local control of the public schools was made a top priority of the six candidates vying to lead Jacksonville as they presented their platforms at a library luncheon on Friday hosted by the AARP.

Maintaining a strong relationship to Little Rock Air Force Base, the need for a revival of community spirit and pride, and new blood and fresh ideas were also common themes among the candidates in the special May 12 election.

Distinguishing the contenders were speaking style and a few favored issues. Randy “Doc” Rhodd, who spoke first by lottery, wanted to stay seated to read a prepared statement, but rose to his feet at the urging of listeners.

He offered a list of concerns he vowed to address if elected, starting with the school district: “We want and need our own district and stop handing out money to other districts.” On keeping the city’s doctors, he said, “We can’t afford to lose the doctors. We need to reach a compromise. I’m afraid the hospital will eventually leave here, too.” Rundown rental properties, a city “over-run with drug problems,” stagnant population and development, and the need to reopen Graham Road, rounded out Rhodd’s list of priorities.

Alderman Gary Fletcher, who spoke next, moved freely before his listeners as he spoke. Rather than offer a litany of priorities, he chose to talk about his years of experience in city government and his ties to the community.

His first, although unsuccessful, bid for city council was at the age of 19, and now he is in his 19th race. His more than 30 years as an alderman have been “active years.

But the committees, titles and ordinances he sponsored were not what really counts in city government,” he said. “The main purpose of what we do is for the good of the people. I am an empathetic person,” he said, “and I take on the small individual’s cause.”

Tommy Dupree, longtime Jacksonville resident, stood tableside as he talked about his years as a real estate developer and builder in business in the 1970s with his brother.

“We were the mass builders early on,” he said, before venturing into commercial development. He laid claim to bring Walmart to Jacksonville as well as other businesses. He was most impassioned about the need to form a public-safety commission to oversee ambulance services and fire and police protection.

“When you have five people watching the hen house rather than one, you’re better off. The police department needs to be watched more closely than anyone of them.” Finishing Hwy. 67/167 improvements as quickly as possible, even if it takes city money to have shovel-ready projects ready for federal funds, is critical to reduce accidents, he said.

Jody Urquhart wasn’t shy about getting up from the table and coming around to the front, putting his contenders behind him, as he spoke about his reasons for entering the race.

“I didn’t take it lightly,” he said, and was undecided until hearing about more of his friends – young couples with children – who had decided to move away from Jacksonville. “That kills me, every time I hear of a young professional family moving out of Jacksonville.”

He was blunt the lack of school spirit that hurts kids in Jacksonville schools, “because we are sick of Pulaski County (Special School District).”

Urquhart proposed working with school district leadership and using city sales tax revenue to rebuild deteriorating school facilities. “Education is the most important issue in this campaign,” he said.

Beckie Brooks stayed put behind the table as she talked about her years living and working in Jacksonville and what matters to her most – the people who live here: “the little people to our seniors.”

Citizens from every quarter need to be drawn out, their ideas heard and energy tapped, in order to “excite the community and get it growing again,” she said.

For her, schools are a top priority, because “It is difficult to sell a community if you can’t sell the schools.” Other concerns include keeping medical services, creation of a small-business directory, and a time limit on local taxes.

“I am not against paying for things, but there needs to be a sunset,” she said.” To dispel a rumor going around, Brooks said, “I am not for doing away with code enforcement!”

Kenny Elliott, last to speak, chose also to stand by his seat as he explained his interest in becoming mayor of Jacksonville, now in his 13th year as an alderman.

A lifelong Jacksonville resident, he said he wants to “give back to the community. I love Jacksonville and care about the future of Jacksonville.”

He told listeners he had the “experience, dedication and vision” to be mayor. That vision includes “a high quality of life and a new community pride.”

A list of priorities included expedited completion of the Joint Education Center, the Vandenberg Boulevard intersection, the police and fire training facility, and quality medical care, economic development, filling vacant buildings with new businesses, stronger enforcement of city housing codes, committees to oversee Sunnyside housing and volunteerism.