A series of stories in The Commercial recently by reporter Eplunus Colvin on the "what's next" aspect of the failed Go Forward Pine Bluff-sponsored sales tax shows even a lesser extent of transparency than initially thought. In that sense, we believe more firmly that the voters' thumbs down on the five-eighths-cent tax was well deserved.
It might help to go back in time to when Joni Alexander was on the Pine Bluff City Council. She had been a fan of Go Forward in the early days, as many others in the city were based on the landslide win the tax had at the ballot box in 2017, but she cooled on the concept as her time on the council progressed.
At the end of her term, she claimed the city council members had been sidelined to a great degree by Go Forward. Because Mayor Shirley Washington had made a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" (our words, not Alexander's) alliance with Go Forward, she largely didn't need to bother with the council – especially those pesky members who questioned Go Forward's influence – other than to meet with them twice a month to pay the city's bills.
One of Colvin's stories included input from Washington, who said she wasn't sure where the money would come from to finish a variety of projects already started within the city.
"We went to Go Forward and asked for help and they said yes," Washington said, referring to one project in the city. "That partnership flows in and out of various projects."
Oh, does it really? We hadn't heard. No one, certainly not the mayor, has said, the city is going to do x, y and z but we'll need Go Forward money to make those projects happen.
Not surprisingly, when Washington has announced projects, the pesky ones would ask where the money was coming from. That aspect, however, was apparently never a concern -- until now when the tap is going to run dry. Apparently, when one has a direct line to Go Forward CEO Ryan Watley, and the Go Forward brass, money is of little concern.
Now, however, we wonder if projects like Opportunity House and the Kevin Collins police training complex will happen. As the mayor put it, she's not sure where the money will come from to complete certain projects.
"If we don't have them completed, the money will still be there and hopefully there is money in the budget," Washington was quoted as saying, "but some of the projects that we have on the table there won't be money for. We'll have to make adjustments to our budget."
And therein lies the additional lack of transparency, which has been a complaint about Washington for quite some time. Most of the gripes on this topic have been on the Go Forward side of the aisle – a Go Forward board that is, for all practical purposes, in charge of more than $30 million in taxpayer money but whose operations and decision-making process is kept from public view, a CEO that makes, at last check, close to $170,000 a year but no member of the public is privy to who ponies up that extraordinary amount of money, etc., etc.
Now, it's clearer that the lack of transparency exists on the city side as well with little to nothing said about where and how Go Forward money is used. And let us just point out that helping out the city here and there was not part of Go Forward's charter. If it had been, well, why not just leave the tax money with the city council in the first place?
And as far as Go Forward changing its spots, that does not appear to be in the works. After the election numbers came in, Watley was asked if Go Forward meetings would be opened to the public because of the agency's lack of transparency. His response was that the public could go to the city council meetings. In short: no. And to that, we say it's definitely time for a change.
Along those lines, we were heartened to read that the NAACP was itself looking at a new plan forward in the wake of Go Forward's tax defeat. It's not that Go Forward has been a debacle, just that it had years to fulfill its mission and has failed in too many respects to be given an extension, both in terms of what it has accomplished and how it went about its affairs.
The NAACP and any others that want to be at the table should take Go Forward's failures into account and create something wholly better for Pine Bluff, something that, as state Rep. Vivian Flowers has said, would allow for the close inspection of where every cent came from and how it was spent. How refreshing that would be.