In an August 2007 special election, 61 percent of Little Rock voters supported an initiative to make the position of mayor a full-time job while retaining the city manager form of government.
Those in favor of the change based their campaign on the premise that the state's largest city should have a strong mayor. Soon after the election, friends of Mayor Mark Stodola (and there are many) began jokingly referring to him as "Strong Mayor" or simply "Strong."
It's a Friday morning, and I'm having breakfast with Stodola at the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock. It also happens to be his 69th birthday. The man known as "Strong" had contacted me following several columns I wrote about the future of Little Rock.
Stodola, who has been mayor since January 2007, recently announced he's not seeking another four-year term due to a serious illness in his family. He tells me that polls show that he's doing well, but there's no doubt that this would have been a tough race due to a growing sentiment among voters that the city is stagnant economically.
Let me say this at the outset: Mark Stodola is a good man. He has served the city with honor and integrity for almost a dozen years. He's the president of the National League of Cities, a position that allows him to learn about best practices across the country and then hopefully bring some of those concepts back to Little Rock.
Stodola's heart is in the right place, but he has faced major handicaps. The first is the fact that the city's business leaders have never united on a common vision and then put their private capital to work to achieve that vision. The second is the half-century of litigation surrounding the public schools that led to thousands of families fleeing to Saline, Faulkner and Lonoke counties. That's an issue that a mayor can't do much about. The third is the city's system of government. Stodola may have become Strong Mayor after that August 2007 special election, but that's not strong enough.
On Nov. 6, 1956, Little Rock voters approved a change to the city manager form of government. On Nov. 11, 1957, voters selected the first city board of directors under that system, which allowed the board to choose a mayor from among its membership to serve a two-year term. That led to the first black mayor (Charles Bussey in 1981) and the first female mayor (Lottie Shackelford in 1987). The position, however, was largely ceremonial.
Jim Dailey served two years as mayor under the original city manager structure. Due to a change approved by Little Rock voters, Dailey was elected to a four-year term in a citywide election. Still, it wasn't a full-time job. Dailey served 14 years as mayor, the longest tenure in the city's history.
When voters made the mayor's job a full-time position in 2007, Little Rock became the only city in the state with both a full-time mayor and a city manager. In retrospect, this created a two-headed monster. Where does the buck stop? At the city manager's desk? Or at the mayor's desk? Little Rock residents can't tell you. More and more people are coming to the realization that it's time to do away with the city manager form of government.
I've written before that what promises to be a hotly contested race for mayor this fall is among the most important political races in Arkansas (not just Little Rock) history. Here's why: With a majority of its 75 counties now losing population, the state needs both northwest Arkansas and Little Rock to thrive. Northwest Arkansas cannot stand alone as an economic engine given the continued decline of large parts of south and east Arkansas. Little Rock simply must have a mayor who can convince the business community to support his or her agenda.
Stodola isn't critical of the private sector, but he realizes that a younger generation of business leaders needs to step forward. He tells me: "We keep going back to the same families year after year, and some of them are tired."
Stodola makes sure I know that the area he refers to as the Creative Corridor has won 11 national and international awards while bringing almost $150 million in private investments downtown. He notes that property values are up and more developers than ever are considering downtown projects. The Little Rock Technology Park is off to a good start. Young talented people are attracted to urban neighborhoods where they can walk or bike to work, which certainly bodes well for the future of downtown.
The area also has been helped by the $70 million transformation of the Robinson Center into one of the top performance venues in this part of the country, the opening of the Broadway Bridge and the addition of hotels and restaurants in the River Market District. A $70 million renovation and expansion of the Arkansas Arts Center is on the drawing board.
"I don't think we do enough to point out the good things that are going on," Stodola says.
He says that what are known as Part 1 crimes (murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, arson, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft) have been under 17,000 for four years. They were above 19,000 in 2006 and 2007 and then stayed above 17,000 for five of the next six years. Violent crime is down 28 percent so far this year compared to the same period in 2017. The Little Rock Police Department hired more than 80 new officers last year, and the number of open positions has dropped to about 25.
Stodola also talks about some things that any mayor of Little Rock will have to overcome. Because Little Rock is the heart of government, there's a significant amount of tax-exempt property in the city. There's also a parochial anti-Little Rock sentiment in the Arkansas Legislature, which seems to have gotten worse in recent years. Legislators (along with residents of booming northwest Arkansas) must realize that for there to be a strong Arkansas, there must be a strong Little Rock. I'm not holding my breath, but Strong Mayor remains optimistic.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 05/27/2018
Print Headline: The strong mayor