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Residents urge transparency in Pine Bluff

by Eplunus Colvin | May 23, 2023 at 3:58 a.m.
Three new welcome signs greet travelers coming into Pine Bluff.

Transparency: the quality of being open to public scrutiny.

That is one of the definitions given to a word commonly used by those against Go Forward Pine Bluff who say the group is far too secretive in its operation.

Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing, and according to the American Legislative Exchange Council, transparency is the government's obligation to share information with citizens that is needed to make informed decisions and to hold officials accountable for the conduct of the people's business – something many citizens say Go Forward Pine Bluff has failed to do.


Former Pine Bluff City Council Member Ivan Whitfield, who is now president of the NAACP, has been in opposition to the Go Forward initiatives since the agency came into existence. He has publicly expressed his feelings about the current sales tax -- as well as the failed attempt on May 9 to extend one sales tax and pass another -- as regressive taxes that hurt low-income families.

Whitfield was concerned about the rush to get the five-eighths-cent sales tax and the three-eighths-cent sales tax on the ballot. He also said he felt the local business community associated with Go Forward should not have waited to use tax dollars to invest in Pine Bluff when they could have invested in it themselves from the beginning.

As a former Pine Bluff police chief, Whitfield said he did not like that the ballot title for the public safety tax did not specify how the funds would be used to benefit public safety. And when it came to the $30 million worth of nearly completed Go Forward projects, Whitfield also demanded accountability and transparency on how all public and private dollars were being spent.

According to Whitfield, it is the private side of the funding that is causing the problems with oversight and accountability.

"They promised it was going to bring retail stores downtown; six years later, it has not arrived yet. They promised an eatery and a kid's zone to the mall; six years later, we are still waiting," Whitfield said.


Once an avid supporter of Go Forward Pine Bluff, former council member and business owner Joni Alexander's view of the agency evolved over the years since the tax started being collected in 2017.

"My support began to shift around the time it was discovered that Go Forward Pine Bluff had $6 million in carry-over that no one else knew about. That's when I lost my trust," said Alexander, referring to a budget meeting held in 2021. "We gave them the money back, despite all the needs of the city; and I told [Go Forward CEO] Ryan [Watley] to build something, and he promised me he would, but nothing was built. And that is when I lost my confidence in Go Forward Pine Bluff."

Alexander has often said the city council became just a formality when it came to voting to pass Go Forward Pine Bluff's projects and that an outside agency funded by a general purpose tax was not needed.

"It's one thing to support Go Forward, but when we're doing things to help their projects when there are so many needs for the city, that's the part that I do not understand, ... that type of commitment to Go Forward," said Alexander.

Being in the political arena for over seven years, Alexander said she felt all the blame should not just be put on Go Forward but also on Mayor Shirley Washington, who, Alexander said, pushed Go Forward's agenda ahead of the city's agenda.

"The council was disregarded, and as an elected official, our positions were stripped," said Alexander. "If you are trying to convince me that the demise of our city and public safety was based on the passing of the tax, then that's on the mayor."

According to Alexander, with no public safety tax in place, the city was able to buy cars and equipment and give raises. "We also have an influx of revenue that we never had before – the casino," she added.

Alexander said the truth lies within the city's budget and a series of unfortunate events that have led to the possibility of not having enough money in the budget to cover expenses and salaries -- more specifically for public safety.

"Does the council know the current state of city finances? How does this happen with all the new revenue coming in?" she asked. "I'm working on finding out. It starts with not passing a balanced budget by inflating revenue. When you use carry-over as revenue, your expenses will eventually supersede what's available. I hope the support for the additional taxes wasn't to cover up budgetary discrepancies, but that's what it's looking like."


When some community leaders were asked if Go Forward officials or the mayor practiced transparency, the answer was no.

"My opposition has consistently been based on incorporating transparency and accountability standards in the sales tax, as well as establishing a Pine Bluff Promise scholarship," said state Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff). "I believe Pine Bluffians want to see all three added to the plan for growth in Pine Bluff."

"The private sector should raise the $7 million they committed to raising during the first campaign," added community activist Kymara Seals, who is also a policy director in Little Rock. "I'm sure the taxpayers have come through with our commitment."

When it comes to transparency with the public/private partnership, Mayor Washington said she knows this can be improved on but that it's not done intentionally.

"I think what we have to do is be more transparent," said Washington. "People want to see those tangibles in the community. We have to have more dirt turning and projects completed, and then they'll realize."

Washington said they would be busy rolling projects out, while building public trust.

"We have to be transparent. It's always been my goal," said Washington. "Sometimes you get really busy on the work, and you may not communicate as much as you should, but you have to be more aggressive in letting the public know exactly what is taking place."

Watley agreed and said Go Forward had hired a public relations representative. For Watley, having to toggle between 15 different projects at the same time, his focus has always been on bringing them to fruition.

"Our accounting financials are public. I've never denied an interview; you call our office for answers, and we report to the IRS," said Watley. "We are a nonprofit that is supposed to benefit the community, invest in it, [and] raise money, but we're getting lost in what a nonprofit does. The fact is we are here for the good of the people. We are raising money and putting it in the community, not in our pockets, because you know what, that's fraud."

Some of the complaints about Go Forward, however, have been associated with the activities of the Go Forward board. Their meetings are not open to the public, yet they have leveraged, with city council approval, some $30 million in Go Forward sales tax revenues on projects of their choosing. The private funding used to pay, for example, Watley's close to $170,000 yearly salary, is also kept secret. Whitfield, on more than one occasion, has referred to the the board as a "city council 2," because he says the directives coming from the board have more weight than what the elected council has.

Watley also noted that by state statute, there are legal guidelines of what a private organization can and cannot do with public dollars, and he said he felt the rhetoric that was put out distracted the overall mission of the organization.

"We're fighting a narrative that the opposition is putting out there that honestly we probably can't keep up with," said Watley. "People want faster, but we are at the mercy of procurement and budgeting. In trying to build community and people, there has to be flexibility. We do what the law says we can do in the categories that we are investing in."

Watley also said that Streetscape and the Aquatic Center were under the Carl Redus administration more than 12 years ago, and Streetscape is still not finished.

"The people spreading those rumors knew that those projects needed the money and had to be done," Watley said in response to being criticized for taking credit for the projects. "We are not taking credit but just trying to tell people what we've done. If we have something to do with it then yeah – the public-private partnership did this, not Go Forward Pine Bluff."


According to Alexander, Go Forward can still accept private donations. "It's simple, if you want to manage tax dollars, run for office. If you don't trust your city government to do its job, elect one that will," she said. "Don't circumvent the democratic process and state constitution."

Alexander said the city does not need a third party to ask permission from to spend tax dollars, and a tax on the ballot addressing specific municipal needs for the city to manage would be more beneficial for the citizens of Pine Bluff.

"The tax not passing revealed the issues within the city's budget, like balancing the budget with carry-over, inflated revenues, people not getting paid what was approved, department budgets running out before year-end, cuts in the Street Department and so on," said Alexander. "Now that the mayor can no longer privately request money from Go Forward, the council will publicly do the job that they were elected to do. That's all the voters wanted."

The current tax will not sunset until 2024. Watley estimates the tax will raise $13 million this year and next and will be used to support the construction of a variety of projects. He said if the tax had passed, the movie theater project would have been something they would have begun to get off the ground.

"Location takes time, procurement process of architects and engineers, the design within budget, review, identifying construction management, issuing bonds, contracts ... that is easily a year and a half just on that before construction even begins," he said. "In 2025, if they decide to revisit the tax and it passes it's still three years after that that Pine Bluff will see a movie theater."

Watley said they put the tax on a special election ballot in May instead of November so voters could focus on those specific measures. As for revisiting the tax proposal, Washington said, they are just getting over losing it at this time.

"That will be up to the citizens, police and fire," she said. "We'll listen to all of them. We'll listen to the elected officials as we move forward and make that determination as we move through the months to come."

According to state Rep. Flowers, the Legislature changed the law on special elections effective Jan. 1, 2024. "Unless Go Forward or the city proposes another tax this year, the next measure will be on the ballot next March," she said.

In the meantime, Whitfield said the NAACP and the NAACP Economic Development Committee will "review and adapt the existing development plans to find the highest and best use of the existing assets in our community for development. Then, we will present these plans and ideas to the citizenry in a series of town hall meetings to help develop 'The People's Plan.'"

"The NAACP will be asking for the city budget," said Whitfield. "With the knowledge of new tax revenue from the casino and medical marijuana, we need to understand where the revenue has been. This will allow us to determine what funds are available for use and make recommendations to generate additional funds."

Flowers has publicly said she was not against a sales tax aimed at improving Pine Bluff but was against the Go Forward Pine Bluff-sponsored tax. Flowers said she did not support the Go Forward tax in 2017 either, as the plans for using the money did not emphasize education programs like the El Dorado Promise. She also said every penny was not accounted for under Go Forward.


With the sides so far apart, is it possible for everyone to come to the table and to find a path forward?

Washington said she believes so, as she has already been listening to the voices of the people. Watley said while he does not oppose sitting at the table to hear future plans for Pine Bluff, the plans cannot be the same thing that Go Forward is already doing. Alexander, who has sat at the table as a concerned council member, said everything the city council advised the mayor not to do was done anyway, and if her voice was not heard then as an active council member, she did not think it would matter now as someone who was born and raised in and loves Pine Bluff.

Alexander also said a meeting with the Go Forward board she had when she began to doubt them proved they were out of touch with the reality of Pine Bluff and the everyday lives of the average citizen, including young people.

"Address the opposition because we the opposition are your supporters. We are not this angry mob, but you have to value the opinions of others," said Alexander, who added that a lot of citizens, city employees and people who have benefited from the tax have come to her for clarity and for a confidential venting session.

"It would be great if all parties were invited to the table to have a reasonable conversation on how we move forward," said Seals, who has also sat at several tables as a community activist. "I'm not optimistic about it, because it seems GFPB thinks they have all the answers, when clearly they don't."

Flowers said what happens next will depend on the action and will of the government, Go Forward and NAACP leaders to grow Pine Bluff together.

"It will depend on whether leaders engage and listen to the people," she said. "As a citizen, I want sustainable growth, jobs and new businesses in my city. And as a state representative, I will fight for my people and work with any and everybody to get there."

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