Hot Springs, the 10th-largest city in Arkansas, bills itself as a friendly resort community. Yet meetings of the Hot Springs Board of Directors are among the most closely guarded in Arkansas. Everyone attending a city board meeting is required to pass through a metal detector and submit carried items to a search by a guard.
That's a level of caution that is not practiced for board meetings in even the state's biggest cities: Little Rock, Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Springdale and Jonesboro.
The heightened security in Hot Springs, instituted this year, illustrates the state of mistrust that has settled over politics in the spa city. While standing in line before a city board meeting earlier this month, I heard a man waiting to go through the metal detector mutter, “It's a sorry thing when elected officials are this worried about their constituents.”
In the past few years, members of two organizations — the Garland Good Government Group and a consortium of churches called The Watchmen of Garland County — have increasingly voiced complaints at the board meetings about the way business is being conducted in Hot Springs. Not all members of the city board appreciate them.
“It's good to have watchdog groups,” Director Carroll Weatherford said last week during an interview in the city attorney's office, “but not to have mad dog groups.”
The GGGG claims about 130 members, residing in both the county and the city. Bob Driggers, a county resident and a leader of the GGGG, says that several people have told him they support the group but fear retaliation, such as harassing inspections of their businesses, if they join.
Pastor Doug Jones, a leader of the Watchmen, says the group represents a coalition of churches concerned about the “moral, ethical and social” health of the county. His “conservative” estimate was that the Watchmen represent 10 churches in the city and seven in the county, with a combined membership of 4,600.
‘If it smells like crap...'
I spoke with members of both groups and found them, if not “mad,” as Weatherford suggested, certainly irate and disgusted. As GGGG member Diane Silverman put it, echoing the day's international news, “Our ship of state has been hijacked and there's nobody to save us from the pirates.”
The pirates, in these critics' view, are developers, investors and real estate dealers who, with crucial help from the city board, are running roughshod over Hot Springs. Most directors are seen as putting the developers' interests ahead of the needs of the city and its taxpayers — including non-residents of the city who are taxed for eating, lodging and shopping in Hot Springs.
But not all members of the city board are blamed equally. Director Peggy Brunner-Maruthur is generally applauded for her stands in opposition to the majority. And Director Cynthia Keheley also gets mostly favorable reviews.
Maruthur and Keheley were the only two members who voted against what has become the board's most controversial action to date: the decision it made in March to fire, in one meeting, the heads and all members of three important city commissions — the Planning Commission, the Historic District Commission, and the Board of Zoning Adjustment — and to begin taking applications to reconstitute the commissions with new appointees.
Mayor Mike Bush, along with directors Elaine Jones, Rick Ramick, Tom Daniel, and Carroll Weatherford, who tend to vote together on most issues, voted for the sweeping action, which set off a howl of objections from already disgruntled critics.
They messed with the wrong guy. One with a voice and a law degree.
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