The Arkansas Leader

In Our Opinion: Jacksonville needs quality leadershipFree Access

Public service, at its best, is about finding solutions to challenges, large and small. That takes persistence and preparation — qualities that are in short supply at Jacksonville City Hall, lately.

For months, we’ve heard ramblings from its City Council members about how the homeless like living on the streets because they don’t want to work or take on responsibility. Yet, one wheelchair-bound veteran told our reporter that he would simply like to take a shower and be treated like a human being. That veteran is from Jacksonville. 

Last winter, employees at The Leader saw a man stealing firewood from a nearby lot, just hours before an ice storm began that was followed by a weeklong deep freeze. He was on foot and said that he lived in nearby woods and was afraid he would freeze. The owner of the firewood gave him more. That was generous, but we still regret not having done more for him.

We sympathize with the mayor’s and the city council’s hesitation to address homelessness. For too long, The Leader has looked the other way on homelessness out of fear that we would be criticized for being “anti-Jacksonville,” so to speak, by shedding light on it.

It’s time to recognize that not all these folks are I-40 drifters and make a strategy to connect them with social services and assistance, if they want it. At least four homeless people we spoke with recently are long-time residents of Jacksonville.

Mayor Jeff Elmore and the city council members are all compassionate people who love their city. It’s time for them to prove that they are capable of solving problems – not just homelessness – as best they can. The homeless crisis caught the country off guard when it seemingly exploded over the pandemic.

It won’t begin to recede without an outreach strategy.

Elmore is too cautious, perhaps fearful he will make mistakes and be subject to relentless criticism from city council members and the public like his predecessors, Gary Fletcher and Bob Johnson, were. They were often hounded by tactless council members, who lacked experience and never really accomplished much for the city.

Some of those cantankerous members have since departed, but perhaps just as unhelpful are council members who don’t contribute meaningfully to discussions, which are meant to guide the decision-making process that ultimately determines the city’s quality of life on many fronts.

Fletcher and Johnson were sometimes idiosyncratic and fumbled at times when faced with political hiccups that spiraled into crises. Nevertheless, they were more often bold and had clear goals for the community and achieved many of them. On their watch, the community experienced historic milestones.

Johnson was defeated for re-election just a few months before the opening of Unity Health hospital, whose executives thanked him for helping to make it happen. It was a legacy achievement that he pursued throughout his term.

Fletcher made economic development a key part of his administration, from supporting the creation of the new school district to SIG Sauer and the opening of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Shooting Sports Complex, and even trying to recruit a new hospital group to take over the then-failing North Metro Medical Center.

To be sure, Fletcher and Johnson found success with lots of help from key community partners. They welcomed ideas and had many of their own.

Elmore truly does have huge shoes to fill. 

Former Mayor Tommy Swaim, who was always a gentleman, regretted not annexing Gravel Ridge, before Sherwood did, and closing the Graham Road railroad in Jacksonville’s historic center. Johnson, Fletcher and Swaim, all inevitably made mistakes, but they left lasting marks on their city by being bold.

They would not have hesitated to help the homeless or have been ashamed to address the problem. Certainly, they would not have dismissed complaints about it from business owners.

To paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s remark to Dan Quayle in 1988 – “You’re no Jack Kennedy” – Elmore is no Fletcher or Johnson. Not even close.

He has not found himself in the role yet and, at this rate, he never will.

He has avoided presenting goals since taking office. Maybe the city’s finances aren’t strong enough to do big things anymore, but when he took office in January, he said cleaning up Jacksonville would be a top priority. That won’t be easy to do in a city with lagging coffers that is obligated to pay for more city services than ever before. 

Elmore deserves credit for his storm response, but that job is far from complete. A number of toppled homes remain nearly exactly as they were since March 31. The community’s rising number of homeless people could very well have been displaced by the storm.    

The mayor and the City Council have avoided specifics about how the rest of the destroyed homes can be cleared away. It’s time they make a plan and share the specifics. 

The city has also failed to make a deal with the Pulaski County Special School District to demolish the old Jacksonville Elementary School campus. PCSSD owns that property, and under Fletcher, Jacksonville signed a $1, century-long lease with PCSSD for the old campus, when the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District was formed, and committed to its upkeep.

Elmore mistakenly believed if the city breached that lease, the Little Rock-based school district would give in and pay to bulldoze the site. Not a chance.

Jacksonville officials allowed the old school to fall into a much worse condition. It was closed because it was out of date for students, but it became truly uninhabitable under Jacksonville’s watch, and long before Elmore became mayor.

PCSSD and Jacksonville need to come to an agreement, quickly, and council members should demand answers and ensure the site is cleared right away. It may be convenient for the city and old school district to redirect blame, but their bureaucratic stalling continues to blight the community.

On Tuesday, Elmore said he is working on a plan to demolish the old campus, but offered no timeline for it. He said the city and JNPSD could split the estimated $200,000 cost to bulldoze it, if PCSSD transfers ownership of the property to Jacksonville. It’s a plan that should have been shared with the public as soon as city officials realized their attempt to breach their lease had backfired. Elmore also said the city will begin mowing the property again.      

Elmore doesn’t strike us as a skilled negotiator, and it’s likely PCSSD superintendent Dr. Charles McNulty scoffed at Jacksonville’s attempt to have his district pay the full cost to clear away the asbestos-ridden campus that was destroyed twice: Once by the city’s intentional neglect of it, and again by the tornado.

The mayor said the lease, which the city has still not been provided to this newspaper, clearly states that the city is responsible for its upkeep. If the city reneged on its 99-year obligation, we aren’t sure why Jacksonville officials ever thought PCSSD would be compelled in court, or voluntarily, to clear that campus before the 22nd Century.

City Council members must ask Elmore and City Attorney Stephanie Friedman to explain their strategy, and why they kept it quiet, when it was clear that breaching the lease failed.

If Jacksonville can’t afford to share in the cost of demolishing the old campus right away, how can the city afford to demolish dozens of homes destroyed in the tornado?

Elmore said the city will receive about $60,000 more from FEMA that can be used to demolish some homes, and the city will have to budget for additional demolition next year. We ask the city council and the mayor to provide a timeline, and a clear plan, to get it done.

Understandably, Jacksonville doesn’t want to spend too much money cleaning up either mess, but property owners deserve an update on what the city can do about them. It will be for the betterment of the community. Ignoring them helps no one.

Dialogue at the city council needs a shot in the arm. The homeless issue could have been handled better, had the mayor and council members prepared more.    

The council fell short when City Council member Mike Dietz recently pointed out that the city’s population hasn’t grown in 28 years. He went on to say that the city’s festival shouldn’t be held on Main Street, because he thought downtown looked haggard. Dietz was flat wrong. Of course, city festivals belong downtown.

Nonetheless, we hope Dietz’s point about population growth wasn’t dismissed as “anti-Jacksonville” because of his poor delivery, or over his mistaken complaints about the festival. Stagnated, or shrinking, population is an existential issue for cities. He was right to bring it up.  

It’s no wonder Dr. Robert Price, the city’s former economic development director, led the city’s 2020 census efforts. The count fell short, but population is even more important to Jacksonville as the drinks-by-the-glass election, the formation of JNPSD, the reopening of the hospital and even the Kum and Go convenience store at the Main Street fork, which, along with the new high school and the library, shows how downtown can successfully be redeveloped.

The mayor and city council should regularly explore how to grow the population and support local businesses, which ultimately grows the tax base.

Hesitate any longer, and you’ll miss your chance to make good things happen for the community. Regrettably, the Jacksonville City Council canceled its regularly scheduled meeting this week because it lacks an agenda. It most certainly does.

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