Little Rock review

Saturday, 16 August 2008
Edit Note:  Tulsans may learn a great deal from other cities that utilize different forms of city government.  Tulsa Today begins with this piece, a review of how those regional "brother” cities work.  Little Rock features a city manager form of government similar to that of Oklahoma City.

Governmental systems are like coffeehouses: so many choices, so many brands. A look at Arkansas, for instance, is to sample an original brand in many ways.  And like coffee beans, distinctive flavors stir within its local government administrations. It’s said one good cup leads to another here.

The heart of Little Rock, the Arkansas state capital, is picturesque and reminiscent of movie scenes from The Da Vinci Code or The Yards. The Arkansas River, which flows into Tulsa, is nestled alongside some of the city’s finest legislative buildings, recently revived riverfront entertainment districts, and newly constructed condos.

As evening stretches its arms across the community, those in high-rise buildings might see the lights of the brand-new baseball park, which sits across the river, come on as patrons await the beginning of an Arkansas Travelers’ game.

The baseball park is a nice place to take a friend in this city.  With a metro population of nearly 584,000, the median age is 35 and residents are comprised into categories of roughly 74 percent white, 22 percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian and less than one percent Native American.

Arkansas is also reportedly eighth in the nation for industry, and a variety of business is conducted here. The city has a notable arts and sciences faction, and corporate headquarters for businesses such as Wal-Mart, Tyson, Dillard’s Department Stores, and Alltel (now Verizon) are nestled quietly in the metro and rural byways that form the "Natural State."
There’s an offbeat profitability in being here. The city of Russellville, for instance, is said to be in the Top 10 for housing markets, according to the local NBC station. No matter where one puts up shop, influences still point to Little Rock government.

For most of the last decade, Mayor Jim Dailey, of Little Rock, has held fast. His official term ran from 1993-2006, when Dailey, known for his regional management skills, chose not to seek re-election.

Independently wealthy, Dailey’s was never a campaign for personal riches, but there was debate about the pay he received for his part-time position of mayor. Now he works privately and holds a seat on the Little Rock National Airport Commission.

No one in the state is more knowledgeable about the inner workings of Little Rock government than Dailey. Kindly, he offers up some historical perspective. His words are eloquent and quick, like they jumped from the pages of a good read before one can blink.

"Little Rock had a strong mayor and council system from 1830 to 1958. Citizens then voted to change to a city manager form of government. It operated like a corporate board of directors, where the CEO was hired by an elected city council," he said.

That system changed in the early 1990s. Dailey, who came in under a mayor system appointed by council, was symbolic of inspiring a continuum of change. First, he incorporated a system where the mayor would be elected by the public and serve a four-year term. Then he became the first mayor directly elected by the public in 38 years.

During his administration, there were recommendations and governance committees, a look into city manager operations and debates over what type of powers a mayor should have and whether the mayor should make more than $36,000 a year. Dailey pushed for additional powers and funding for the mayor position, even going so far as to suggest that he would donate additional funds allocated to his salary to charity.

"We were not able to get it completed," he said. "When I decided not to seek re-election, Mark Stadola, the current mayor, was elected. He and the city board continued discussions and implemented the recommendations we had set forth."

Dailey described Little Rock government in its current state as a "hybrid" situation. "It’s a traditional system in which the mayor enjoys additional power. In essence, [the mayor is] a chief executive with limited chief executive authority," he said.

Although the mayor is now elected by the public, the city manager is responsible for the day-to-day operations of city government.

"The difference is that his powers as chief executive are governed by the mayor, who is responsible for hiring and firing the city manager and city attorney. Before that, it was the city board and council that hired and fired the city manager and attorney," he said. "This process gives the mayor a little more authority."

Even with a mayor at the forefront, back office functions are highly regarded and remain significant in terms of influence and accountability.
"Ninety-eight percent of government in Arkansas is a pure council form of government, including North Little Rock," Dailey said. "In most systems, there is a mayor that hires his own department heads and does not have to seek approval. In the Little Rock hybrid, the city manger does that — and does not have to seek approval of the mayor or city council. Influence can depend a lot on political dynamics."

He offered a hypothetical on how it can be really interesting:
"Consider legislation which says, depending on how you interpret it, that a mayor should be paid no less than the highest city employee. If that person gets a pay increase, then the mayor should get an increase. That is not happening," he said. "If Bruce Moore were fired, we’d conduct a national search for a new city manager. Instead of hiring one at $150,000, let’s say we hire one at $260,000. Whatever we hire the person at, it is the mayor who makes the choice, subject to the approval of the city council."

Almost poetic, Dailey asked if that sounded right. "All I am telling you is that the evolution of change is something that has some real interesting interpretations and outcomes. That is what Little Rock is going through — a transition to a system that had begun to evolve in the early 90s to a stronger position in which a person is elected directly," he said. "Little Rock has always maintained the city manager form of government."

Accounts of Dailey’s activities reflect a well-earned reputation. His experiences, he said, taught him a great deal about mayoral systems in general.

"Tulsa has a pure, strong form of city government. Dallas also has a city manager form of city government, although there are multimillion-dollar campaigns for mayor there," he said. "There has been an evolution to get away from giving too much power to the city manager without balancing that with some real power for the mayor. The public wants to know that who they elect can call the shots. Therein lies the real conundrum."

The city manager system was something he said worked well because he accepted that he had a city manager. "I didn’t try to abuse the position. What I did was make myself available 24 hours a day so that I would be there if needed — and I worked with the manager to make sure I knew what was happening," he said.

When it comes to Tulsa, Dailey continued, "I would say the mayor council system is one of the best forms in today’s world, because it is very clear who is the boss, who is elected, and who is held accountable," he said. "Ultimately, it comes down to the people — they make the determination when elections come around."

Touching on the functionality of these types of government, Dailey discussed the National Civic League and training that would teach professionals how to run day-to-day operations in office. The conversation lights up with reference to the city of Maumelle, AR, and the way one city manager conducted business.

Maumelle, AR, located on the outskirts of Little Rock, is referenced as one of the best communities to live and work. "People in Maumelle got upset because they didn’t like the way the city manager was doing something in zoning, and they held a petition drive. When individuals realized that they could not elect or unelect him, they decided to turn the thing over and elect someone," Dailey explained. "That is that direct accountability and the public saying we want more connection."

Historically, council members have had difficulties with city managers. "It usually results from some board member that felt like they did not get the attention they needed to get something done," Dailey said. "Sometimes those individuals would build a constituency."

He continued, "There was no major dissatisfaction in Little Rock until the late 80s. At the time, we had a very strong city manger named Tom Dalton. Because he had the ability to get his team together and get things done, he was a hot button — and that resulted in marches at City Hall from labor groups and other special interests."

Dailey compared the events in Maumelle to those that occurred in Dalton‘s term. "Maumelle is the kind of community that could get divided, and ways to preserve the idea that there is benefit to this professional management should be considered," he said.

The academic progress of city government comes into question, since there is now an abundance of professionally trained administrators who specialize in governmental affairs.
"There are more people that have a Masters of Public Administration and more governments hiring these people to be part of their staff. The hybrid flux in this situation lends to accountability. A mayor can hire someone smarter than they are to run operations and market that as part of their work," he said. "As mayor, one could say when issues arise that the matter will be brought to the attentio n of the city manager. Accountability then falls on him — and it may or may not involve a directive from city council members."

While in office, Dailey held one phrase especially dear. " ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ I espoused that the entire time and remained committed to regional thinking. We accomplished a lot on a regional basis, under that umbrella," he said. "I believe we’re all in this boat together. If it springs a link, we had better all be bailing. That is really what a community is all about."

Community struggles are in direct relation to personalities, and how welcome or encroached upon individuals feel. "They may want to toss the manager or mayor, but I say toss them at election time, not the form of government. In general, that is not the answer. I think it was the answer for Little Rock, but I wish we would have done it differently," he said. "The way we did things, however, kept people at the table together in an evolving process."

The true purpose of a mayor is something of consideration in light of all of this. In the ceremonial opening of the Olympic Games, it was said that a government is the guarantee of its children. The role a mayor plays in the welfare of our daily lives and in causes such as education should be examined or remembered. One might say that the true function of a mayor is about filling potholes, not about saving the world. Perhaps that falls more into the hands of Feds.

The true test of a mayor, however, can be found in how well they govern or are perceived to govern an area and how those actions manifest into other facets of city operations and impact our daily lives.

Pat O’Brien, the current Pulaski Circuit/County Clerk, serves Little Rock and its surrounding cities. Before this appointment, he served the residents of Jacksonville, AR, on the school board and through other involvements.

When approached, he’s candid, perhaps an earmark of his training.  "I’m an attorney," he said, "so I will give you an opinio n on anything."  

He offers two observations on government. The first caters to the notion of the government agency. The second lends itself to government as a business.

"Where there is an elected official, he seems to be more responsive than an appointed official. They need to be accessible or there is a price to pay at election time or perhaps in the grocery store. The people see you at that office and they will tell you what they think," he said. "The second observation is that people want government like a business. I think there are ways to bring a more business type of model. One of the great limits is that business takes a lot of risks."

O’Brien continued, "Public officials make homeruns and sometimes they strike. I don’t think a lot of times the general public is on board with the government taking risks, and that keeps the status quo in existence. Things don’t change and agency heads don’t want to take big risks."

The lyrics to the Blues Traveler’s song Just Wait seem to eloquently sum up the latter idea: "Time’s the beauty of the road being long."  Applied to city government, this could reflect a rare opportunity to have time to think, examine processes and see how well something does or does not work through the continuum of time.

"We accomplished a lot in Little Rock because people are willing to collaborate. Although I am not one for praise, I like that we have made progress in this city. Even as we have evolved, united we stand," Dailey said.

Two years since leaving office, Dailey remains a continued recipient of awards for past works. At the Governor’s Mansion recently, he received great distinction from housing market officials. Sitting at the front table, to the left of the podium, he was ever gracious. Across the room, community leaders were still looking to him for direction, maybe a re-election, perhaps answers.

Dailey smiles. He’s still busy shaking hands.

About the author: Tracy Crain is the managing editor of Tulsa Today. She holds degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and completed post graduate work at the University of Memphis in Tennesse. To learn more, click here.
Last Updated ( Saturday, 18 July 2009 )