A special called Pine Bluff City Council meeting failed to establish a quorum Thursday, leaving city officials unable to agree to receiving federal funds through the Arkansas Black Mayors Association for a watershed project.
Pine Bluff is one of 19 cities in south and east Arkansas approved to share in a $95.9 million investment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service toward improving watersheds to address flooding in low-income communities. The Conservation Service is working with the ABMA to disburse funds to its partner cities for similar watershed projects, and at least three representatives from the ABMA were in attendance inside the City Council chambers anticipating that the city's governing body would authorize Mayor Shirley Washington and City Clerk Janice Roberts to sign documents issued by the ABMA under the Watershed Flood Prevention Operations Program.
Instead, only three of Pine Bluff's eight council members – Glen Brown Sr., Steven Mays Sr. and Bruce Lockett – attended the meeting along with Washington, leaving one council person shy of a quorum. The three who attended were sponsors of the resolution.
Lockett, who said he called the special meeting, claimed he contacted all council persons except for Latisha Brunson in Ward 1 about the one-item agenda. He accused those who were absent of sitting out so the resolution could not be approved.
"I would think it's rather cowardly of them not to appear," Lockett said publicly before the roll was taken. "I mean that. This is no way to do business."
Washington replied: "I had nothing to do with it."
Lockett publicly accused Washington of leaving other council members in the dark about the funding process, and said the purpose of the meeting was to find out the "proper way" to access what he estimated was $32 million to $35 million in federal funding for the watershed project. The Conservation Service announced its investment in April 2022 and five months later formally agreed to make the ABMA a fiscal agent for the agreement Washington was to sign.
"This money is sorely needed, so I'm very disappointed my fellow council members who didn't make the quorum," Lockett said. "I spoke to everyone but one of them, and they all said they would appear, but they did not. So, the only thing I can ascertain is that, somehow, they don't have the courage to come to this council and listen to what is needed for us to sign on to this grant so we can access these funds."
Washington said there is "no truth" to Lockett's accusation of asking council members to hold out from the meeting. She immediately left the chambers after the roll was called but was reached by phone less than an hour later.
"In 6½ years, we have had a lot of contested issues, and there were times I wish we never had a quorum," Washington said. "It wasn't me or anyone on my team that told them to not come. I don't know what's happened. I don't know why they weren't there."
At issue is whether Pine Bluff will rely on the ABMA's disbursement of funding to improve nine watersheds in the city: Bayou Bartholomew Headwaters, Caney Creek-Caney Bayou, Caney Creek-Arkansas River, Plum Bayou-Arkansas River, Cousart Bayou Headwaters-Lake Alice Watershed, Imbeau Bayou, Nevins Creek, Upper Deep Bayou and Boggy Bayou-Bayou Bartholomew. EJES Inc. of Dallas and FTN Associates of Little Rock were announced as the architects for the Pine Bluff project during a news conference in Little Rock on May 22.
According to documents related to the proposed resolution and a letter Washington sent to state conservationist Michael Sullivan in March 2022, a preliminary feasibility report costing the city $55,000 was completed, with planning estimated at $2.2 million, engineering during the design phase at $5.5 million and construction at $22 million for a total of $29,755,000, well under Lockett's estimation. Under the contract with the ABMA, the Conservation Service would have covered 100% of the planning, designing, construction and engineering costs.
But Washington has voiced her preference for Pine Bluff to conduct its own watershed project without ABMA assistance. She said the city has the capacity and refundable finances to complete the project, and she said after last month's news conference she preferred Pine Bluff go on its own so not to lose out on the federal funding.
"When the money was first announced, I didn't know ABMA would have the fiscal responsibility and operational management," Washington said. "I asked could Pine Bluff manage its own project."
That request, she said, came after she noticed a "level of mismanagement" within the ABMA.
Under the now-stalled contract, the goal for Pine Bluff was to prepare a final plan for authorization by Oct. 1, 2024, although ABMA representatives say the goal was to complete the watershed improvements by November of that year.
Washington said her next step is to ask Sullivan to give Pine Bluff a contract to access the federal funds. Pine Bluff has enough to cover planning and part of construction, she said.
"If we had started early enough, you would apply to the NRCS [Conservation Service] for additional funding," she said. Washington added Pine Bluff, Forrest City, Marianna, Helena-West Helena and Camden were fully funded for projects.
Frank Bateman, executive director of the ABMA, did not speak to the mismanagement allegation before Washington was interviewed, but he showed a copy of an application the ABMA and Pine Bluff submitted for the federal funds.
"The city of Pine Bluff and ABMA are partners in this," Bateman said. "That's what it's about. We're supposed to try to get flooding and drainage out. We understand they may have the capacity to do it, but they didn't have or talk about it when we put the application in. So, you put the application in and then when the money gets here, you want to pull out and get everyone else to pull out."