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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

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  • RBear
    May 27, 2018 at 8:55 a.m.

    A very good column by Nelson on the current state of Little Rock municipal government, echoing similar thoughts I have after moving back to the city from nearly a quarter of a century in San Antonio. While I see the value of a good city manager, Little Rock is not in the right place for that now and needs to revert back to a strong mayor form of government. While many of the major cities of TX have council-manager forms of government, they are also of sizes 6 times or greater than Little Rock. Heck, one city council district in San Antonio is almost as big as all of Little Rock.
    But there is one point Nelson makes that I think merits greater conversation. "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." That one point is what has struck me about Little Rock and why I think this city has never really moved to the next level of development. Without a shared vision built by the community, there is no plan for growth.
    That fact became evident when I joined over a thousand residents of San Antonio to build SA 2020 collectively. It was our city's road map to the future and still serves as the blueprint for the city. It wasn't built by a few "leaders" in a back room. It was built in full transparency by 800-1,000 citizens in weekend sessions at venues in every corner of the city. The final report even shows the table sessions where we all came together to write the plan.
    What came from it is Pre-K for SA, Cafe College, the Decade of Downtown, a growing Emerald Necklace of greenways and parks, economic development in all parts of the city, infill development to eliminate urban deserts, and greater investment in public art. Those are but a few of the benefits of the community plan. But they have helped San Antonio continue to grow, recording the largest growth in 2017 in major cities in the nation.
    I've mentioned this to two of the three candidates and feel the next mayor of the city should strongly consider such an effort. It will help he or she with plotting a course for the city that everyone can buy into. If Little Rock really wants to survive and thrive, it needs something all can agree to.

  • drs01
    May 27, 2018 at 11:06 a.m.

    One thing for sure about Little Rock. When voters decided to create this 2-headed government, they had no idea what the results would be. It looked good on paper and ideally it sounded like a good idea, but....
    Nelson speaks the truth about this city. We're the city with the responsibility for state capital infrastructure and improvements but not enough support ( $$$$) to provide it; and an ageless resentment from the legislature to help fix the problem.
    Stodola has done what he could under the circumstances; faced with stagnant growth, a commuter work force, failing schools and resentment to a charter school alternative, his focus on downtown revitalization was his only choice. Create a downtown environment where tourists can mingle; attempt to make the Clinton Library a destination address, and attract young adults if possible. And don't overlook the "arts".
    Stodola's comment " We keep going back to the same families year after year, and some of them are tired." is indicative of an ageless problem we have in Little Rock. For too long, the same civic and political re-treads have been attempting to shape the future of this city. What my father called the "dirty dozen" of years past may have been expanded in numbers but little else.
    If Little Rock wants to progress, we need to decide what form of government will lead us. Two heads confuse the citizens and dilutes the power. Fix this before we elect another mayor who will struggle as Stodola has.

  • RBear
    May 27, 2018 at 11:23 a.m.

    Drs it cannot be fixed before we elect a new mayor. The voters must fix that and the next mayoral election is in November. That being said, the charge of the next mayor should be to lead an effort to fix the issue and help set forth a new vision for ALL the city.
    Another need is for a new, younger BOD. The average tenure of the curent board is almost 20 years, with the average for at-large at 23 years. Drs speaks the truth when he says, “For too long, the same civic and political re-treads have been attempting to shape the future of this city. What my father called the "dirty dozen" of years past may have been expanded in numbers but little else.“
    It is time for new leadership and new ideas. I call on some of the current board to NOT seek re-election and allow those new voices to come forward. Bow out gracefully instead of being forced out. If the later is your choice, you WILL be forced out as your time has come.

  • PopMom
    May 27, 2018 at 11:52 a.m.

    Fixing up Robinson Auditorium is like putting lipstick on a pig. That money should have been spend on fixing the schools, social services, and crime enforcement. Little Rock needs a Bloomberg who will do what needs to be done and take the political heat. The schools are bad from elementary on up. Teachers' contracts need to be renegotiated or purchased and better teachers hired. School days and years need to be lengthened. Birth control needs to be distributed to drug addicts and unfit parents. Children need to be taken away from unfit parents. The gangs need to be controlled through stop and frisk. When the schools improve and crime decreases, people will return to Little Rock to live.

  • NoUserName
    May 27, 2018 at 11:56 a.m.

    Bear is, of course right. The problem is that nobody is going to tank their own meal ticket to do what needs to be done.

  • Dontsufferfools
    May 27, 2018 at 5:56 p.m.

    Come on, RBear, "shared vision?" What would that shared vision look like, and why would discrete business interests have a shared vision? And why is it the capitalists' vision that is so important? That's is just BS. The columnist comes close to figuring things out when he alludes to the "half-century of litigation surrounding the public schools." The litigation starting this was Brown v. Board. After that, it was just a matter of the folks who wanted to keep their separate schools, churches and neighborhoods moving to Cabot, Bryant, and Conway and hollowing out parts of the city. In-fill development can be a slow and painful process, but it happened downtown and it will happen elsewhere in the city's east and south.

  • RBear
    May 27, 2018 at 6:07 p.m.

    DSF I suggest you Google up SA 2020 and see what I'm talking about. I've talked to several in Little Rock who would BEG for this and it's not about some capitalist dream. In fact, during our process in SA we had all at the table working together at the table, literally. The report has many photos from the sessions which shows how that came about.
    "And why is it the capitalists' vision that is so important? That's is just BS." Where did that come from? I don't think I ever mentioned something like that.

  • Razrbak
    May 28, 2018 at 7 a.m.

    Last Term Mayor Stodola is full of crap. The violent crime rate in LR is twice the national average. I guess that only two tourists murdered in the last two years (one from Italy and one from IL) is functionally zero risk for tourists. Stodola and the board have given the CoC public funds for years while each sitting member of the LRBOD & Stodola have accepted funds from the CoC associated PAC - Progress PAC. We have most of the white police officers working for LRPD afraid to live in the city due to crime and schools, and the department is divided along racial lines. The COP is trying to get a job elsewhere and we spent almost $15k sending him to Harvard to boost his resume. We need to get rid of all the sitting LRBOD's and city manager Bruce Moore. Then with the election of a new mayor and fresh city board members the problems LR faces can be tackled. #TimeForChange #CleanOutLRCityHall #ByeByeBuckner

  • Razrbak
    May 28, 2018 at 7:21 a.m.

    And for the record, Stodola has been mayor so long, he was first elected to office before the first iPhone was released. He like the first iPhone is outdated and worthless.