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A new name was one of the ideas bandied about on a Metroplan board retreat last week that devoted a session to restructuring the agency to be more effective at managing future development in central Arkansas.

Board members seemed to come away from the retreat at Hot Springs Village last week with a general agreement that some change beyond a new name would be good for central Arkansas' designated metropolitan planning agency, but what form that takes will be left to a task force of board members to develop recommendations.

"I don't think we need major restructuring," said Bryant Mayor Jill Dabbs, the board's president. "But I think there's some opportunity for improvement."

The task force will include Dabbs and the rest of the four-member executive committee as well as four additional board members.

And it doesn't sound like whatever new shape the agency takes will happen any time soon.

"It was a good discussion, but it was the first step of a multi-step process," Maumelle Mayor Mike Watson said.

The self-examination was triggered by the sometimes angry debate over 30 Crossing, the proposed $630.7 million project to remake the aging and congested 6.7-mile Interstate 30 corridor through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, including replacing the I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River.

The project is sponsored by the Arkansas Department of Transportation, but Metroplan, as the federally designated metropolitan planning agency for the region, had some input into the project.

The board and an array of outside interests, including the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Central Arkansas Library System and the Clinton Presidential Center, backed the project.

But a coalition of downtown neighborhood interests and others opposed the project, including an arm of Metroplan, the Regional Planning Advisory Council. The volunteer group helped shape the long-range transportation plan for the region, which didn't include a project as ambitious as 30 Crossing.

The council felt its work on its transportation plan, called Imagine Central Arkansas, was for naught after the board would vote to move 30 Crossing forward despite council recommendations against the project.

That disconnect between the board and the council, often called RPAC, led to the broader restructuring discussion.

"I heard it from the RPAC, I heard it from the board," said Tab Townsell, the Metroplan executive director. "I'm not assigning blame."

What role the council has in Metroplan is a source of "great confusion," Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said at Tuesday's session devoted to restructuring. "RPAC is the issue we should be talking about."

Stodola, in particular, expressed exasperation with council members who portrayed themselves as "defenders of the vision" as laid out in the long-range transportation plan. Imagine Central Arkansas, among other things, limits freeways to six lanes and encourages alternative transportation modes, including transit and bicycling.

"If they are defenders of the vision, I'm not sure we as elected officials knew that," Stodola said. "RPAC, do they have more authority than the board has."

While no decisions were made at the retreat, it was clear that some changes would be made to the council.

The suggested changes include imposing term limits on Regional Planning Advisory Council members. The members, numbering about 40, have no set terms and thus, Townsell said, if they serve for several years have little connection with their jurisdictions' current office holders.

The council, in the future, might include more local planning officials and engineers, which could balance the vision for the region with practical knowledge of the region.

Townsell also promoted some more limited steps, including making the board president's term two years instead of one, and giving the executive committee more responsibility, including vetting the recommendations of the council.

All of the changes are to improve the agency, but leave intact the council, which has been an effective platform for public involvement, Dabbs said.

"I think the RPAC, the input that they've given us, we want them to be relevant," she said. "We want their input to be relevant. But the way we're structured right now, there is a disconnect between the board and them.

"Rethinking how we're structured will tear down those silos and give more fluid information between the committees."

The restructuring discussion also got Townsell thinking about the disconnect between Metroplan and the Department of Transportation and state government in general, what he called "the lack of influence at the statewide level."

"We're not fighting at our proper weight," he said. "We're not holding our own."

That could include involving the governor's office or a member of the Arkansas Highway Commission as a standing, nonvoting board member.

He similarly lamented the agency's lack of influence at the local level beyond the city and county chief executives who make up the board, and thought that members of area city councils and quorum courts should be brought into the planning process.

That eventually led to a brief discussion of the name, or as Shannon Hills Mayor Mike Kemp said, "branding."

While Metroplan is well-regarded among its peers around the nation, not many people know what it does or even what it is.

"Our visibility is about a 5 on a 30 scale," said Faulkner County Judge Jim Baker.

Townsell acknowledged that "we need to step up our presence," which Kemp said could include a marketing budget.

Dabbs also said the board needs to work more closely with state-level representatives, including central Arkansas lawmakers.

"We're all working on the same things," she said. "But if we work on them together, we'll get there."

Metro on 04/23/2018

Print Headline: Metroplan debates name change at talks on agency restructuring

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  • TimberTopper
    April 23, 2018 at 6:52 a.m.

    Name changes accomplish nothing as a rule. The cost of changing letterhead and other signage is an unnecessary expense.