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story.lead_photo.caption Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington (from left) and Council Members Steven Mays and Ivan Whitfield participate in Tuesday morning’s debate at Pine Bluff High School. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Dale Ellis)

PINE BLUFF -- Candidates for mayor squared off Tuesday morning at Pine Bluff High School in a free-wheeling and sometimes raucous debate that at times left moderators struggling to maintain control.

At one point, a moderator cut off a microphone of a candidate in mid-speech after telling him to get back on topic.

The Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative and the sales tax that funds it was a major issue.

In the first round of debates, Mayor Shirley Washington and her two rivals from the City Council, Ivan Whitfield and Steven Mays, were first asked which of their two opponents they would prefer to win the election if they themselves lost.

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Washington and Whitfield, while not coming right out and answering the question, pledged to work with whoever the winner might be.

"I think that would be my civic responsibility to support whichever one is chosen if I am not elected," said Washington.

"I believe in the people's voice, plain and simple," said Whitfield. "If I'm not the one at the end of the day, whatever candidate comes out is the one I would support."

Mays, by contrast, took jabs at both of his opponents, saying that he would support the one who has done the most for the people of Pine Bluff, but intimating that neither has worked hard enough to earn his support.

"It is hard to find any elected official who has done a whole lot for you. They have forgot about you," Mays said, prompting moderator Floyd Donald of Deltaplex Radio to ask him, "Which one would you support?"

"I'm not going to make a selection. I can outwork both of them," said Mays, eliciting cheers and groans from the audience.

Moderator Ray King of the Pine Bluff Commercial asked Washington about the push-back she has received from her opponents regarding a five-eighths percent sales tax passed in 2017 to fund the Go Forward Pine Bluff initiative. In October, Whitfield sponsored a resolution to divert $2.1 million of the tax money to other projects, which prompted Washington to propose an ordinance two weeks later to counter the resolution.

Washington said that an extensive public information campaign was started by proponents of the tax to explain how it was to be spent.

"There were meetings held throughout the city for months to inform people of how that money was to be spent," she said. "All of those initiatives that are in place are initiatives that will move this city forward."

Mays, who has repeatedly referred to the initiative as a "scam," said he stands by that assertion, and he called into question other taxes that have been passed, such as the "Penny for Progress" tax passed in 2011 that helped fund construction of the city's new aquatic center and a millage increase passed in 2016 to fund a new library.

"A lot of this stuff is fooling you all," Mays said. "You're being taxed $4.2 million a year and you haven't seen anything but a concert downtown."

King reiterated his question to Whitfield, pointing out that informational meetings were held in every ward as well as in front of a number of civic groups, including the NAACP, of which Whitfield was president at the time.

"Now don't you think the people knew what they were voting for?" King asked.

"I never said the people didn't know what they were voting for," Whitfield responded. "I said that Simmons Bank held an election midsummer when people were on vacation, tending to their children, asking for $4 million a year to put the money into Main Street. That's the problem I had with it."

Mays, explaining his opposition to the 2011 tax, which expired in 2018, said that none of the proceeds had been used to benefit the city. He then went on to talk about the industrial park.

"The industrial park has White Hall, Ark., on it," Mays said, referring to Jefferson Industrial Park at 5203 Jefferson Parkway in Pine Bluff. "That was Pine Bluff, Ark. They have a 71602 [ZIP code] and they call themselves creating jobs in White Hall with our tax dollars. Don't be fooled by that. This is a scam against blacks."

King pointed out that over the past two years, taxes collected by the city had gone to fund five projects, four of which are in Ward 4, which Mays represents on the City Council, which he said added nearly 300 jobs in Pine Bluff.

At that point, Mays began various claims regarding the industrial park and Watson Chapel School District, and he accused the moderators of being beholden to Go Forward Pine Bluff.

"Look, these are two Go Forward, Simmons Bank guys sitting right here, Ray and Floyd...," he began.

"That is ridiculous, now that stops right now," King said.

"If you look at the industrial park, it says White Hall, Ark., on it," Mays continued. "Even the Dollarway Schools says White Hall. That $15 million is just setting there. You all need jobs now. That chicken plant on Second Street. That's the best we can do?"

Whitfield said that the funds being collected from the 2017 sales tax, instead of funding jobs, have been going to events the like King Cotton basketball tournament and festivals like Forward Fest, both of which, he said, were funded by tax proceeds but also charged admission.

"That was crazy," he said. "That's the tax that we got a problem with."

Washington said committees working on both events were examining ways they could be improved in the future.

Washington said a big challenge in creating jobs in the community lies in preparing a workforce with both the hard skills needed to meet specific job requirements and the soft skills needed to function in the workplace. She said companies are challenged in finding enough employees who will be at work on time or who can pass mandatory drug screenings, and finding people with a strong work ethic.

"I say that because these are the challenges we face in trying to draw the big Fortune 500 type factories into the city," she said.

Each candidate was given the opportunity to wrap up by asking a question of one of the other candidates.

"Go Forward, Simmons Bank, brought all those people in town, they get $4.2 million a year, they spent all that money to fly them in, hotel them out, feed them for three or four days, and the gym over here at Pine Bluff High School is leaking," Mays said. "That's what they think about you all."

Mays then went on to complain about the condition of the railroad crossings in town, but never directed a question to either opponent.

Washington pointed out that the the city cannot legally spend sales tax proceeds to repair school facilities.

Whitfield asked Washington why she did not hold out for financial incentives from the Quapaw Nation when it was initially seeking to put a casino in Pine Bluff.

"We are in partnership with the Quapaw Nation and there are some things that will be coming to our community," Washington responded. She said with the opening of Saracen Annex, the city is receiving an additional $100,000 a month in gambling-tax revenue already.

Noting the sharp differences among the three candidates and the sometimes rancorous tenor of the campaign, Donald asked how the three can work together to accomplish city business.

"If you want change, you have to talk about it," Whitfield said. "When we talk about it, we can agree to disagree."

Mays compared the campaign to a job interview but drifted afield from the question, prompting Donald to cut in.

"I want to lead the city of Pine Bluff, we can do a lot better than we've been doing," he said. "You all are being looked over and you're growing... ."

"Let me ask you again, Mr. Mays," Donald began.

"No, no, let me finish," Mays said.

"You're giving a sermon and the rules say if you don't respect...," Donald began, then tried to redirect the question to Washington over Mays' protests.

"Cut his d..n mic off," Donald demanded, as Mays continued to interrupt. "Cut his mic off now. I'm sick of you. Cut his mic off."

After Mays was silenced, Washington said that when she took office in 2017, there was a lot of contention on the council.

"The most critical thing about working together is communication," she said. "It is transparency."

The three candidates face off in the Democratic primary on March 3. Early voting begins Tuesday and ends March 2. Because no Republican or other party candidates are seeking the post, the winner of the primary will be the winner of the election.

State Desk on 02/12/2020

Print Headline: PB mayor candidates get feisty at debate

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