Mayor of the Year earns title, and then some

Linda Hicks Contributing Writer Published September 1, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

James Firestone has been the mayor of Vilonia since 2008. While he refers to the training facility he helped secure for the city’s police department as one of his greatest accomplishment in office, Firestone may have to add to that list an award he will soon receive. The Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police has named him Mayor of the Year.

— Mayor James Firestone of Vilonia, a husband, father, grandfather and director of operations for the Little Rock Port Authority, is comfortable being addressed by many titles.

However, he hasn’t relaxed yet hearing his latest designation. He has been named Mayor of the Year by the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police and will be recognized at the association’s convention in September.

“I am waiting on a phone call with them saying, ‘Oh, we made a mistake. It wasn’t you. It was someone with a similar name, or the city had a similar name, and we take it all back,’” he said with a grin on his face.

On a serious note, he said, the recognition is an honor. A mayor, he said, doesn’t get a lot of “thank-yous,” which is how he interprets the award. He appreciates his relationship with Vilonia Police Chief Brad McNew and the officers serving with the department.

“I try to spend as much time with them as I can,” he said. “I try to let the Police Department know how much the community needs them. Also, I want them to have the best possible training.”

Actions, Firestone said, speak much louder than words. Since becoming the mayor in 2008, one of his greatest accomplishments, he said, has been helping the Police Department secure a training facility.

“That is something I wanted, for them, from way back. I support these guys,” he said. “If someone comes to me with a good idea, I try to see if I can make it work.”

Firestone said he is also frugal with the city’s finances and tries to stretch every dollar. Building the police training facility and getting it equipped took some out-of-the-box thinking, he said. In order to secure the best location for a shooting range, one piece of land that belonged to the city had to be traded for another that was owned by a resident. He also said police officers volunteered some of their off-duty time to work on the project.

Modestly speaking, he said, he is credited with a lot more successes in the city than he deserves. Many successful projects, he said, have become successful because someone was willing to listen to another’s plan.

A lifelong resident of Vilonia, Firestone said he loves his job as mayor. Many residents, he said, believe that in order to get something done they need to talk directly to him when they have issues, rather than to his staff. It is not unusual for that to happen in local restaurants and grocery stores.

“That’s OK,” he said. “I like visiting with people. That’s the way it is in a small town. When I became mayor, my first name changed from James to Mayor.”

It’s also common for someone to pull up a chair when he and his wife, Diane, are dining out. It might be that the visitor, rather than voicing a need or complaint concerning city business, wants to hear about the couple’s latest adventure riding their Harley motorcycle cross-country with a group of friends.

“That is how we relax,” he said. “My favorite thing is to get my motorcycle out and my wife on the back and head out with our friends Tom and Nancy Erbach.”

On that note, Firestone said, he and his wife had a great adventure this year riding into Canada. So far, he said, they have toured 35 states, surviving hailstorms, tumbleweeds blowing across roads, black smoke from wildfires and, this year, hitting a deer.

Firestone was nominated for Mayor of the Year by McNew, who refers to Firestone as an exceptional leader and an advocate of what many view as a “sleepy” community that is no longer so sleepy.

Many activities have been initiated by Firestone during the past five-or-so years, McNew said. Firestone also spearheaded recovery efforts that strengthened the community after the 2010 tornado, McNew said.

“Being a black belt in taekwondo, he has personally helped train the officers in defense training. The population has increased by 81 percent since he took office, yet the crime rate has remained stable,” McNew said.

Firestone was also a great help to the Police Department in obtaining and constructing a state-of-the-art training facility for police, and he supports its being used by other law enforcement agencies.

“He has supported the officers by developing a pay-scale system and offering certificate pay,” McNew said. “He has allowed the Police Department to equip their vehicles with infrared cameras and video, and purchased a live-scan fingerprinting system and department-issued weapons, including shotguns, rifles and handguns. He is always open to new ideas.”

McNew said he also appreciates Firestone’s comical side. He dressed as Mountain Man, from the popular TV show Duck Dynasty, to help raise funds for the Museum of Veterans and Military History, which Firestone also helped to start in the city.

A lifelong resident of Vilonia, Firestone served as a City Council member for nearly five terms before

becoming mayor. He served as a school-board member for nine years and was a charter member of the Vilonia Community Recreation Association, helping to get the city’s first ballpark built. Most recently, the council approved Firestone’s recommendation to build a second ballpark to include softball and soccer complexes.

McNew also talked about Firestone being a “family man.” He has been married for 41 years, and he and his wife have two grown daughters. The couple can be seen at local events cheering on their granddaughters, and the Firestones, wearing leather, might even drive up on their big Harley.

McNew said it is fitting that Firestone should be honored by the organization.

“He is one of the best mayors and all-around men I’ve had the privilege to work with,” McNew said. “I think about where the city was when I came here in ’98 and where it is now. Just about everything good that has happened, he has been a part of it.”

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