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story.lead_photo.caption A map showing Little Rock Ward 2.

Improving infrastructure and youth programs in Little Rock's second ward are top priorities for city director candidates, and each candidate brings unique experience to the table.

Incumbent Ken Richardson, 52, who has been the Ward 2 representative since 2007, said he hopes to continue his community-building and youth intervention work. Ward 2 includes parts of central and southwest Little Rock.

Early voting began Monday. The election is Nov. 6. City directors serve four-year terms and make $18,500 a year.

One new idea Richardson said he wants to pursue is urban gardening, which would use vacant lots and employ people, taking an economical approach to public safety.

[2018 ELECTION: Full Democrat-Gazette coverage of Arkansas races]

Valerie Tatum, 54, also expressed interest in working with "disconnected" youth in the area. Tatum founded Covenant Keepers Charter School in southwest Little Rock. She said she chose to run because she felt she could make a greater impact as a city director and that she wanted to take a data-driven approach to city issues.

If elected, Tatum said she wanted to provide youth wraparound services and look at property cases in environmental court. She said she would listen to constituents to decide how to spend infrastructure dollars.

"I'm a strong voice for neighborhoods, as I've worked with neighborhood associations on projects such as infrastructure, working together in the community, and also having contracts inspired by working with youth in the community," she said.

Shalonda Michelle, 39, said she took issue with using the terms "disconnected" and "underserved" to describe the young people in the area, instead saying she would call the ward's youth "under-resourced." Michelle said she is running because she understands the area. She grew up in a Ward 2 housing project and said she returned years later to see many of the same problems, including a lack of grocery stores and activity centers.

Michelle said she would beautify the ward, increase police-community engagement and start a food co-op.

Rohn Muse, 65, said he is running because he has the right knowledge and experience, as well as a commitment to neighborhoods. Muse served six years on the city Planning Commission and founded the Forest Hills Neighborhood Association. He is a part-time social sciences instructor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Vacant lots and unsafe rental properties were among the topics the Ward 2 candidates weighed in on at a recent forum.

Ward 2 has more than 100 structures said to be vacant, unsafe or both, the second-highest of the city's seven wards, according to an August report from City Manager Bruce Moore's office. Additionally, the city's rental inspection ordinance calls for each rental unit in the city to be inspected every two years, but the code enforcement division lags behind.

Richardson said he would advocate for resources for renters while encouraging home ownership.

"Has anyone in this room ever changed the oil on a rental car? You don't do it because you don't own it," he said.

Muse said he believes code enforcement officers need the division to be fully staffed and need new training, citing a disconnect between the division and the city's Public Works Department.

He said the city should work with state legislators to get a warranty-of-habitability law, a measure requiring that rental units be safe and healthy and say that some upkeep of an apartment is required even if it is not explicitly stated on the lease. Arkansas is the only state without such a law.

Michelle also said she would advocate at the Legislature for renters. She said rental housing is part of the city's growth.

Tatum said the city should prepare code enforcement officers for unsafe situations they face, look at their salaries and make sure they are fulfilling their responsibilities.

The average salary for a Little Rock code enforcement officer is $30,908, according to the city.

Candidates said they favor budgeting maintenance dollars for building and improving sidewalks.

Michelle said expanding the budget for sidewalks would increase the safety of people who commute by foot as well as people with disabilities in Ward 2, and beautify the city.

Muse and Tatum said they support setting aside money for sidewalks throughout the city. Muse said the city should expand a program that lets residents sign up and get on a waiting list for a sidewalk to be built in their area to include all streets that lack adequate sidewalks and drainage.

Richardson said building more sidewalks would be an opportunity to expand a re-entry program that creates work for ex-felons.

The candidates are either opposed to extending city services to areas outside city limits -- something land developers have encouraged -- or say more information would be needed.

A study on the costs of providing services such as sewer and police and fire protection to Little Rock's extraterritorial jurisdiction -- the area outside city limits but within the city's zoning control -- is set to be completed in November.

Michelle said she would not support extending such service.

"If we cannot take care of home, and make sure that it is safe and clean, then going outside of the city, no sir," she said.

Tatum echoed her sentiment and said she would need more information before making a specific decision. Richardson said it depended on the property in question. Muse said that was something he dealt with while on the Planning Commission, which developed a plan to require those areas to intend to annex to the city so the city could collect tax revenue.

Tatum's candidacy was spotlighted last week when city officials said they were informed that she did not live in Ward 2 when she filed to run, and City Attorney Tom Carpenter said he would take the matter to court to prevent votes for her from being counted. Tatum moved to an address within Ward 2 earlier this month.

Photo by Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Shalonda Michelle
Rohn Muse
Ken Richardson
Valerie Tatum

Metro on 10/27/2018

Print Headline: LR director hopefuls focus on youths

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