Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

TOP STORY >> Mayoral hopefuls debate top issues

Leader staff writer

In explaining the difference between himself and Alderman Kenny Elliott, Alderman Gary Fletcher told the crowd of about 200 at Tuesday’s candidate forum that 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.”

Elliott responded by saying that he may not be the best talker. “But I am a planner and an organizer and can get things done. Rather than talk the talk, I can walk the walk and lead Jacksonville into the future,” he said.

Both candidates, the top two from an original field of six, spent almost three hours answering questions from the audience and the moderator, Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien at the chamber-sponsored forum at the community center.

In the May 12 special election, Fletcher received 39 percent of the vote and Elliott received 32 percent of the vote. The runoff election is set for June 2. Early voting starts Tuesday.

O’Brien reminded the audience that residents can vote in the runoff, even if they did not vote in the May 12 election.

The event was divided into two rounds. In the first round, each candidate was given 30 minutes to answer questions from the moderator. Fletcher used up all of his time on the first six or seven questions, and Elliot still had 10 minutes left, allowing him to respond to nine straight questions.

In the second round, residents asked questions directly to the candidates and each had a minute to respond. Fletcher ran out of time or overtime on a number of the questions.

To start the night off, Fletcher thanked everyone for coming to the forum. “I know it was hard to choose between us and ‘American Idol,’” he quipped.

Fletcher did thank the 952 people who voted for him on May12, and added that the election “was not about any one particular candidate, but about our city.”

Elliott said it was a very important election. “It is a chance to pick the best candidate to lead the city into the future,” he said.

He told the audience that he’s made no promises he couldn’t keep and is not beholden to anyone and would leave his job with the Pulaski County Special School District to work for the city full time as its mayor.

Both candidates agreed that schools were the number one priority.

When asked 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 explained 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.

Elliot said as mayor, it would be his job to “give all the effort I can and lead the charge.”

He said there are numerous groups like the World Class Educational Foundation working to get Jacksonville its own district, and “I’ll support them in every way possible.”

The candidates were also asked about annexation plans.

Elliott said, “Yes, we need to be looking at any area we can annex, but it has to be in the best interest of Jacksonville and that area. We need a good plan for any area before we do it.”

Fletcher 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.

When asked what makes him the better candidate, Elliot said that he may not have as many years on the council as Fletcher but is more involved. “Not just in Jacksonville, but with the Municipal League and the National League of Cities. I have the experience and worked hard to get it,” he said.

Fletcher said it was not about the years served but what happened during those years. He said, “I’ve been through some storms and have come out stronger and more tempered. After 30 years, I’m Gary and I’ll be the same.”

Whoever becomes mayor will work for $76,000 a year and have a car allowance of $1,000.

The city council last week decided on the salary after turning down two other proposals.

Alderman Bob Stroud suggested a salary of $70,000 and a car allowance of $5,000.

Alderman Avis Twitty wanted to pay the new mayor $73,000 plus a $6,000 car allowance.