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Vote on at-large officials delayed

Bill ditches posts, recasts city wards by Chelsea Boozer | March 14, 2015 at 2:23 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK -- A state House committee postponed a vote Friday on a bill to do away with at-large city board seats in towns with a city manager form of government.

This is the second time in recent years Rep. John Walker,D-Little Rock, proposed legislation eliminating at-large seats, which are elected through a citywide vote instead of by residents in a defined geographical zone. Walker filed a similar bill in 2011 that didn't make it out of committee.

The House Committee on City, County and Local Affairs ran out of time discussing House Bill 1952 on Friday and agreed to take up the bill again Wednesday.

Walker said his legislation would ensure the "one-man, one-vote" principle "to make sure that each citizen's vote counts equally." He and other black activists have long argued having at-large positions on the Little Rock board disenfranchises black voters and candidates.

White people have a better chance of winning an at-large seat, Walker has said, adding Little Rock's three at-large directors who are white cancel out the votes of the 11-member board's three black directors, who were elected by their respective wards.

In addition to Little Rock, Fort Smith, Siloam Springs, Arkadelphia, Hope, Hot Springs and Texarkana operate under a city manager form of government.

HB1952 would dictate the composition of city boards in towns with that form of government where members of a minority group make up at least 10 percent of the population. The cities would split into seven equally populated wards. Residents of each zone would elect a single member to the board.

Except for Hope, mayors are elected at large and have a seat on the board. Hope's elected members choose a mayor from among themselves.

Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter said earlier this week mayors would be kicked off the board under Walker's bill.

Walker told the committee Friday, "I'm not trying to deal with the mayor [position]. It can certainly be elected by all people."

In many city manager governments, the mayor serves as chairman of the board and only votes in the event of a tie. He has the power to veto ordinances and make appointments to the city's various commissions, with board approval.

State Rep. Donnie Copeland, a Little Rock Republican and member of the House Committee on City, County and Local Affairs, said Walker's bill seemed like "very specific legislation" targeted toward Little Rock.

When asked by Copeland, Walker said he wasn't sure of how many cities his bill would affect but used Little Rock in his examples.

Arkansas Municipal League attorney Mark Hayes took issue with a different part of Walker's bill.

The bill says the board selection procedures must comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. To Hayes, that's a policy declaration that ultimately would affect all Arkansas cities.

"That's saying we as the state of Arkansas are making a comment that the Voting Rights Act would be in violation if you have at-large voting," Hayes said Friday.

If Walker only wants to eliminate at-large board seats, a bill could be drafted that strikes language anywhere in state law allowing for at-large seats without the state making a legal declaration, Hayes said.

NW News on 03/14/2015

Print Headline: Vote on at-large officials delayed

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