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The Gould Citizens Advisory Council (GCAC), a civic group banned from meeting within Gould by members of the City Council, met Monday night to conduct normal business and rally support within a community that has seen its share of violence and political discord in the past weeks.
In late June, the City Council passed an ordinance to "disallow" the GCAC from meeting within the city limits and to prohibit the creation of new organizations without council approval. The City Council also passed an ordinance prohibiting the mayor or other City Council members from meeting with any organization without the council's consent. Another ordinance said the City Council must approve the use of public buildings by the mayor and other groups. Gould Mayor Earnest Nash vetoed the ordinances, but the City Council overrode his veto in a July 12 meeting.
On July 28, the Arkansas chapter of the ACLU sent a letter to the City Council asking it to repeal the ordinances because they were unconstitutional. "These ordinances are breathtaking in their attempt to undermine the most fundamental American principles of democracy and liberty," staff attorney Holly Dickson wrote.
Later that night Nash was pistol-whipped outside a gas station in Gould. Nash said City Council members Sonja Farley, Harry Hall and Rosieanna Smith-Lee were present at the time of the attack. State police are investigating. Nash says he plans to press charges.
Bernadette Devone, a member of GCAC, said Gould has had its share of problems in recent years — bankruptcy issues, troubles with the town's water system and financial mismanagement.
"The citizens, back in 2004 and 2005, decided that enough was enough, and decided to start holding their City Council members accountable," Devone said. "We put together a political platform stating that we needed to have City Council people who had good government skills, that didn't have their own personal agenda, that were working for the whole community. There was a group of people that took exception to that. They wanted things to stay their way. When they got into office, they got upset that the citizens had decided to elect Mayor Nash. Since he's been in office they have tried to degrade him and push him out of office."
Devone said Nash has "made mistakes" while in office, but says the mayor's critics have done a poor job of airing their grievances.
"There's a process to go through," she said. "You have to get the input and support for the community, which they don't have. Whether they have legitimate reasons or not, it's how they're going about it and they're destroying the community by doing it that way."
Monday night's meeting was an attempt to regain some sense of normalcy. Curtis Mangrum, the chairman of GCAC, hardly made mention of the attack on the mayor or the city's political squabbles.
"I think it's very important to show unity," Mangrum said. "You have to understand that a lot of these other communities in Arkansas suffer from the same problems and issues that we have. Maybe not to the same degree right now, but on some level we're all struggling. So this is a collaboration of all these different communities coming together in support of Gould."
Sixty or 70 people packed the tiny room inside the town's community center, most of them wearing bright orange stickers that read, "I believe in Gould." Mangrum opened the meeting by restating the group's mission. Leaders of various committees — education, neighborhood watch, political awareness and beautification — gave their regular reports.
State Police Troop E Commander Lloyd Franklin attended last night's meeting to reassure citizens that they should not be afraid.
"We are not going to tolerate anyone mistreating anyone," Franklin said. "Just pick up the phone and let us know. You do what's right and we'll be behind you."
The last item on the agenda read "Why do you love Gould?" Volunteers stood up to tell their stories. Erma Preston, a member of the City Council who showed up to support GCAC, drew applause and even a couple of "Amens!" as she said, "We've got some troubles in the way, but looking at all of you, I know it's going to be OK."
William El-Amin chairs the group's political awareness committee. He said the meeting's turn-out spoke for itself.
"We had a packed house tonight," he said. "Regardless of what the City Council thought at that time, with the help of GCAC, these citizens were educated to the fact that [the ordinance] was unconstitutional. With that said, tonight we sort of dispelled that ordinance. On the positive side, no one got arrested. The meeting tonight showed that with education and unity, we'll be all right."
The City Council is set to meet again Aug. 9. Nash says he doesn't think a meeting will be productive given the council's current make-up. Multiple attempts to reach Nash's critics on the City Council, including his most vocal opponent, Sonja Farley, were unsuccessful.
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