Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
It's been just over half a century since Little Rock residents voted to strip their mayor of virtually all but symbolic power. Tuesday, they'll decide whether to give some of it back — with a heftily beefed-up paycheck to boot.
Supporters say it's crucial to Little Rock's future to have one person who's politically accountable for crafting and pursuing a vision for the city, and are trying to focus the discussion on the structure of municipal government, not on Mayor Mark Stodola himself. But opponents worry that the interests of Little Rock's less affluent citizens would get even less attention if any power was siphoned from ward representatives on the city's Board of Directors. They're also concerned that the Aug. 14 special election is coming too quickly after the start of Stodola's administration. Some have also said they believe the changes are an effort to oust or diminish City Manager Bruce Moore — a charge that Stodola and every other board member who supports the changes has publicly denied.
There are two separate questions on Tuesday's ballot. Each can be approved individually.
The first would give the mayor the authority to veto any city board vote. (Currently, his vote carries the same amount of weight as the 10 directors.) The board would be able to override the veto with a two-thirds majority.
The second question would give the mayor a list of new powers:
• The authority to hire and fire the city manager and city attorney — with the board's approval. The board would also still conduct annual evaluations of the city manager and city attorney. Currently, the board can hire and fire those positions by a majority vote.
• The ability to fill vacancies on city boards and commissions — again with the board's approval, and after consulting with the respective ward representative and at-large city directors.
• The responsibility of preparing the city's budget with the city manager. The city manager would still administer the budget.
• Oversight of the city manager. According to the ballot language, the city manager would perform his duties under state law “at the direction of the mayor.”
Under state law, giving the mayor these additional duties and powers converts the position to full-time, and requires a salary and benefit package pegged to that of the highest-ranking municipal employee — in this case, Moore, who earns $160,000 per year.
In practical terms, the mayor would still not have the power to make any major decisions unilaterally. But he would have more influence over setting the agenda for the city — and, Stodola said, would be able to act and react more quickly to take advantage of development opportunities for the city.
Although the Board of Directors voted just two months ago to hold the special election on the issue of expanded mayoral powers, the idea has been developing for well over a decade.
Voters over the years have rejected a variety of proposals to change the way both the mayor and the board of directors are elected. They approved the current system — a directly elected but essentially powerless part-time mayor, seven directors elected from wards, three directors elected city-wide — in 1993, following the recommendations of a community-based planning group called Future-Little Rock.
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