A Conway grassroots group wanting to discuss issues of race in the aftermath of the death of a Black man in police custody earlier this year said Friday that the fight continues in its quest to get on the City Council agenda.
The group, Reinvest in Conway, wants a spot on the Conway City Council agenda to plead with Mayor Bart Castleberry and council members to host a town hall meeting on racial issues.
The group was formed after the Feb. 4 death of Lionel Morris, 39, of Conway, who died after Conway police used a stun gun on him numerous times as he ran from and struggled with officers. He was suspected of shoplifting at the Harps Food Store at 1120 E. German Lane in Conway.
The group was denied without an explanation as to the reason, said the group's founder, Hadiya Cummings.
"We've been pressing for a town hall since June," Cummings said. "We have valid concerns, and we were never given a reason or an explanation for not allowing us to address the City Council."
Dozens of members of Reinvest in Conway, as well as Black Lives Matter members, lined the sidewalks outside before the Conway City Council's Aug. 25 meeting, demanding that they be placed on the council agenda.
Numerous counterprotesters, clutching rifles, stood across the street, with some of them claiming they were ready to defend the city should the first group start to riot. No confrontation took place.
When contacted Friday, city spokesman Bobby Kelly said Castleberry denied the request to be on the agenda because City Council meetings are for city business only and not for public discussion.
"We're not going to have a town hall meeting in the middle of a City Council meeting," Kelly said.
In an email obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette through the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, Felicia Rogers, the mayor's executive assistant, said, "It has not been approved for the upcoming agenda," in response to an email from Cummings asking for the status of the group's request.
Rogers offered to forward the group's 16-page proposal -- with testimonies, budget research and suggestions -- to the council members.
Requests to be on the Conway City Council agenda have to be submitted to the mayor's office no later than noon at least seven days before the meeting. It's Castleberry who decides who will be on the council agenda, Rogers said.
A request through the Freedom of Information Act by the Democrat-Gazette showed that Reinvest in Conway was the only request to the city since January for placement on the council's agenda.
Other Central Arkansas municipalities aren't as strict on public input during council meetings. Little Rock incorporates a "Citizen Communication" period at the end of its public meetings. Individuals wishing to address the city Board of Directors are required to submit a yellow information card to the city clerk before the start of the meeting.
The North Little Rock City Council allows public comment as long as the request is made by 4 p.m. on the day of the meeting. The city clerk also reads aloud some emails sent by members of the public who want to voice their concerns.
Jim Baker, county judge of Faulkner County, does not end the county Quorum Court meeting without asking if anyone in the room has anything they would like to discuss.
When asked in late August why members of Reinvest in Conway were not allowed to speak at the council meeting, Castleberry said, "I will not defund the police."
Cummings said the group does not want the Conway Police Department defunded and is only suggesting that funds be reallocated to social initiatives to strengthen the community and improve law enforcement.
Some protesters at the time, however, held up poster-board signs that said, "Defund the Police."
"He knows that's not what we're suggesting," Cummings said, referring to Castleberry. "When you look at our proposal, there's nothing to suggest that we're saying to take away money from the Police Department. We're only asking for a freeze in the budget for three years, which is not in any way, shape or form 'defunding the police.' The mayor is well aware of that and also is aware of the optic of branding our campaign as 'defunding the police.'"
The proposal quotes the nearly $13 million budget for the city's law enforcement departments and cites lack of funding for initiatives such as providing more mental health services, establishing a cultural arts center, providing substance use prevention programs and investing in job training programs.
"It is beyond time we invest in the citizens of Conway and fund community experts in mental health, drug abuse, social services, and community development rather than police to more effectively reduce violence and promote true public safety for all members of the community," the group said in the proposal.
Other suggestions in the proposal included:
• Banning chokeholds of suspects by police.
• Requiring officers to intervene if they witness another officer using excessive force.
• Banning anti-riot gear.
• Establishing an independent review board to address officer misconduct and allegations of excessive force.
• Placing officers on unpaid administrative leave while they are under investigation.
Cummings rebuked a suggestion by Kelly that Reinvest in Conway host the town hall meeting itself.
"The point of a town hall meeting is the fact that the officials are there to listen to the people," Cummings said. "They are the ones that do the policy work around the issues. It's a waste of time for us to host a town hall if no one from the city will be there. And it's a little bizarre that our council people do not take questions at the meetings."
In a July 6 email obtained by the Democrat-Gazette, Castleberry acknowledged Cummings' request for Reinvest in Conway to be placed on the agenda, but he did not give a reason for the denial.
Castleberry instead said that a town hall would be scheduled but that he could not "set a date at this time" because of the challenges presented by the covid-19 pandemic.
"I suggest you meet with [Conway Police] Chief William Tapley to express your demands to him," Castleberry said in the email.
In an Aug. 24 email to council members and city officials, Rogers said Cummings had already met at different times with her, Castleberry, Tapley, City Attorney Chuck Clawson and Conway diversity and economic development coordinator Shawanna Rodgers.
"While we understand the urgency, we need to give Chief Tapley time to adjust to his new role as Chief," Rogers said in the email, adding that the Conway Police Department publicly released initiatives and is "currently working on several policy changes."
Tapley became the chief in July.
Print Headline: Group seeks discussion on race in Conway