North Little Rock's City Council, and the city itself, will lose a wealth of experience and knowledge within its municipal government when senior council member Murry Witcher retires from the council at the end this year.
Upon completing his seventh term, or 28 years, on the council, Witcher, 71, will equal former Alderman Olen Thomas as North Little Rock's longest-serving council member.
Witcher announced earlier this year that he wouldn't seek an eighth term on the council, but he also said immediately after his winning election in 2014 that he didn't plan to have another campaign.
Filing for municipal positions in North Little Rock for the Nov. 6 election will begin July 27. Witcher's Ward 4 position is expected to be the only open seat on the council.
"I have been thinking about this for a long time," Witcher said in a recent interview. "I've seen a lot of big changes, and I've been a part of many of those changes over the years. I'm happy with that."
Witcher recalled being on the council for just over two years when a couple of murders in North Little Rock's downtown spurred both the City Council and the community to action. Now the city's downtown is a historic district, bustling with business and nighttime activities. A city-managed downtown plaza is on its way, as well as millions in investments in apartments, office buildings, stores and restaurants.
"You look at that area now and how it's turned around," Witcher said. "The community did it. The city was a partner in it. That's so important because a viable downtown is a mark of a healthy community, and most certainly I think we're healthy right now."
Mayor Joe Smith called Witcher "our rock" on the City Council and said his experience "makes a tremendous amount of difference" in how the city government functions. He said he's known Witcher "basically forever."
"He's the one I always go to if I feel like I need to bounce some ideas off someone," Smith said. "He doesn't take anything personal. He's very level-headed and always, always makes decisions based on what's best for the entire city. I know I can bounce any issue off of him and I'll get a level-headed, thoughtful opinion back."
Council member Charlie Hight, who will become the council's senior member when Witcher is gone, talked recently about how well he and Witcher have worked together as Ward 4 partners, and how Witcher's knowledge of the City Council's functions helped him when he joined the council in 2000.
Hight said he and Witcher's wife, Becky, grew up together in North Little Rock, and he's known Witcher for at least 42 years.
"I can't remember when I didn't know him," Hight said. "We've bonded [on the council] and really work well together for what's been 18 years now for me. He's always been readily available. I don't think we've ever gotten into a dispute or a quarrel or an argument over something concerning our ward.
"Murry has always had what's best for the city at heart," Hight said. "I'm going to miss him."
Witcher's long governmental experience has also gone beyond the City Council, including time in other influential positions in North Little Rock, the state and nationally. He's been a member of the city's Senior Citizens Commission for 26 years, served as president of the Arkansas Municipal League in 2010-11, and held consecutive terms on the executive committee of the National League of Cities, in 2012-13 and 2014-15.
But Witcher has actively pushed to include younger people on city commissions and the City Council. That's an initiative Smith has taken on not only within North Little Rock but for the state as the Arkansas Municipal League's new president.
"He's the first City Council member who's given me five commitments for younger folks' involvement," Smith said of a request he made last month to all council members. "He understands where I'm headed, and he agrees that we have to start working to get younger people involved and not have people see us as an old people's council."
When he officially announced he wouldn't seek re-election early this year, Witcher referred to that need for younger residents becoming involved in local government, saying the city would otherwise suffer the loss of needed experience and more diverse ideas in the future. Maurice Taylor, at 53, is North Little Rock's youngest council member.
Asked in an interview if he would like to see candidates for his open council seat be between 35 and 45 years old, Witcher said he would.
"And I'd like to see them win, if possible," he said.
Witcher isn't ready for full retirement himself. During his last election year, 2014, Witcher did retire as coordinator of regulatory affairs at Entergy Arkansas, but he took on a two-day-a-week job as a regulatory specialist for an environmental engineering firm.
"I enjoy it," Witcher said. "I get to travel the state and visit with county judges and municipal people and see their municipal operations.
"I really still like what I do, and I like doing things for the city," Witcher said. "But my wife wants me to slow down. I don't think she really knows what she's asking for. I'm up at 5:30 every morning and bang around the house."
Metro on 07/09/2018
Print Headline: 28-year council member nears retirement in NLR