Winter is the perfect time to explore the natural stone shelters where native Arkansans once lived
She's about 5'4" with blonde-streaked hair and, on some days, bottle-tan skin. She supports conceal and carry rights, touts Christianity on Facebook, makes public appearances in polyester blend and employs phrases like "gotcha" when presiding over city council meetings. Once she juggled a dual management role, overseeing both her daughter's swim team and her husband's business. She spends her days composing termination letters for directors of city departments and peppering city hall with GOP figureheads. Dollar Store buzz is she's got her sights on the mansion. No, not the Hurricane Lake mansion.
This is not Sarah Palin, circa 1999. It's Jill Dabbs, circa 2012. She's the first female mayor of Bryant — land of strip malls, shiny housing developments, suburban amenities and recently, three-ring public meetings.
Dabbs, 39, has been a neon billboard from the beginning. While campaigning in late 2010, she sued Saline County to change her name so the non-partisan ballot would read "Republican" Jill Dabbs. She lost the suit, won the election, and garnered a stern scolding from the state Ethics Commission for misreporting campaign funds. (Somehow, fish fry admission fees never made it to the official donation record.)
In January 2011, her first month in office, she replaced the chief of police (an 18-year force veteran) with Mark Kizer, the husband of her friend and colleague, City Clerk Heather Kizer. Then she gave herself and Clerk Kizer pay raises, without the approval of the City Council. (The money was quickly returned, after another Ethics Commission wrist-slap.) Shayne King, the city's human resources director of 12 years, questioned the raises before the Commission caught wind. King was fired for her efforts and is now suing the mayor and the city for $333,104 in wrongful discharge.
King is one of 47 full-time city employees who have been fired or resigned since Dabbs took office. Last month, an alderman introduced a recall petition to have the mayor removed.
Dabbs is unwilling to discuss any of this with the Arkansas Times because she dislikes the Arkansas Blog's reportage on her administration. After dodging interview requests for months, she came clean at a town hall meeting in early February: "It's against my convictions to speak to Arkansas Times, or any paper that publishes lies," she said coolly.
But in a Jan. 5 interview on KTHV, Ch. 11, Dabbs addressed the recall effort: "There has been some false allegations against me and my administration from people that oppose me, and that just comes with the job. ... They've talked about this [recall petition] since this time last year. Why they're getting traction on it at this point in time is beyond me."
She also mentioned Alderman Adrian Henley, who initiated the recall effort. "I have invited you individually, Adrian Henley, Alderman Henley, I have invited you to my office to come and discuss with me what your concerns are, and he has yet to do so. I offer my office to anyone who wants to come and visit with me. This is the people's office, it's not mine. My assistant is Gail. Anyone that wants to speak with me or has any concerns about what we are doing can call Gail." (Gail was unable to help the Arkansas Times.)
When the KTHV reporter asked Dabbs about the fast-disappearing city employees, Dabbs flashed a toothy pageant smile. "I get along great with all the city employees, but I would like to say, I terminated three department heads at the beginning of the year, and at the end of 2011, I asked for the resignation of two. That's a total of five. [Then] there were some people in those departments that did not want to work in my administration."
In all fairness, Dabbs, 39, has a tough job. Four years of studying English and speech at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock couldn't have prepared her for the urban planning nightmare she now faces. Bryant mushroomed from a population of 387 in 1950, to a grand white-flight tally of 1,199 by 1970. A few decades later, around the time HBO aired "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock," Bryant nearly doubled again, from 5,269 in 1990 to 9,764 in 2000. Now the tally hovers just below 17,000, and the city infrastructure struggles to keep up. Older residents resent taxes and codes that come with annexation. They don't want new roads creeping close, devaluing their property. But nearly 60 percent of the town's workforce commutes beyond Saline County. These younger professionals, who shop, play and worship in the capital city, want clean schools, low crime and free-flowing roads.
"People don't want change, or they want it, but they want it slower. Sometimes if that wheel is out there and it's squeaking, you've got to grease it," Police Chief Kizer said in a recent interview with the Times.
Kizer appeared comfortable behind the massive mahogany desk in his office. He has the fabled cop-belly and shoulders slack from too many hours behind a computer. Bryant is not a hotbed of crime. In fact, Kizer can only recall two homicides in the past decade, and at least one was domestic and committed by a non-Bryant resident.
"I'll tell you anything you want to know," Kizer said affably. "I've known the mayor 10 years. I met Allen [Dabbs, the mayor's husband] when he was on the City Council, and I was a sergeant at the police department. And we're on Quorum Court together."
Besides being police chief, Kizer, along with Allen Dabbs, is a Republican member of the Saline County Quorum Court. Kizer and Dabbs also volunteer as deputies for the Saline County Sheriff's Office. Mayor Dabbs has been criticized for hiring Mark Kizer, who started pulling a city paycheck on the same day that she did. The former chief, Tony Coffman, resigned in order to keep his vacation pay. ("I'd heard that Mayor Dabbs was planning to fire me and hire Mark Kizer," he said.)
Chief Kizer leaned forward, elbows on his desk. "Anytime you have a position as strong as police chief, you need to have some kind of friendship with that person. You need to know what they are capable of," he said. "Allen rode with me as a reserve, he knew the job I did ... And as long as job is being done efficiently, what does it matter?"
Kizer served on the Bryant police force from 1999 till 2003. "I had a couple of cases involving the police chief's children. His daughter was arrested twice for narcotics on my shift. So it became a hostile work environment," he said. His problems were with an earlier chief, but he left the force shortly after Coffman became chief. After two years with the Saline County Sheriff's Office, Kizer started his own business, selling law enforcement equipment.
Kizer's chief's salary was set at $74,092, $7,400 higher annually than Coffman's. On his employment application, he listed previous positions in sales. He was chosen over 14 other applicants, all of whom had listed law enforcement positions. Two applicants had over 30 years experience in law enforcement.
Since Kizer became chief, aldermen have accused the force of frivolous spending, including the purchase of two Hummers and a skylift (an adjustable crowd surveillance platform). "These were bought at deep discount from a federal surplus," Kizer explained. "It's over $400,000 of equipment that the city was able to purchase for less than $5,000, and there is a need for it. The Hummers help with interstate rescue in inclement weather ... we got the skylift at the request of the high school, because they were worried about what was going on in dark parking lots during football games."
In February 2010, two months into her term, Dabbs fired the city engineer and the information technology manager. Late last year, she asked for the resignation of Gary Hollis, head of finance (who was reinstated by the Council in an emergency meeting on Jan. 4 and then resigned again Jan. 19), and Nga Mahfouz, city attorney. Dabbs insinuated that the two were under investigation in connection with an IT contract fraud that has cost the city nearly $50,000. But according to Ken Casady, county prosecutor, no Bryant employee, current or former, is undergoing criminal investigation.
Dabbs replaced Mahfouz with Doyle Webb, chair of the Arkansas Republican Party — again, without the approval of the council and despite the fact that he plans to keep his full-time GOP. gig.
The prolonged game of employee musical chairs has ignited furious debate amongst Bryant residents on online forums, and recent council meetings have been rife with climactic moments.
Once, Dabbs walked out of a meeting after Alderman Brenda Miller asked her to explain a recently surfaced photo taken in the summer of 2011. The photo shows Dabbs sitting next to a man with an open beer, at a city park in a dry county. "This is a big ole 'gotcha' moment, but I'm here to discuss city business," Dabbs said, rising from her chair.
"This is city business," several aldermen protested, even as Dabbs stormed off.
Alderman Henley announced the recall effort in a KATV interview following January's emergency meeting. If Henley collects 2,400 signatures, the recall will earn a spot on the ballot in November 2012. If the recall passes, Dabbs would leave office in December 2012. The council would appoint an interim mayor until new elections could be arranged.
At a bakery, the morning after the announcement, Henley tried to explain why he initiated the recall. "Last night I had a guy come up, get in my face, tell me he's going to recall me," Henley said. "But this is a professional thing, and there are laws that allow recall. At least 50 or 60 people asked me, what can we do to remove her? There was a big outcry. I wouldn't have stepped out otherwise. I represent the citizens, and I'm supposed to be the guy out there on point."
Some people think Henley just wants Dabbs's job.
"I'm not interested in being mayor. Not at this time; maybe in the future." Henley's voice was muffled, because he was half under the table gathering the crackers his 2-year-old son had flung there. At 34, Henley has three kids and homework. He's roughly halfway through a political science degree at UALR, and it does seem that he has enough on his plate without trying to oversee an imploding city.
According to Henley, Bryant has been through four IT directors and three human resource directors since Dabbs took office. "And she remodeled her office and the clerk's in her first week. Twenty-six hundred dollars worth of furniture! No other administration came in and just started spending money like that," he said.
Before his termination, city engineer Richard Penn served Bryant for eight years under three mayors. "Mayor Dabbs asked all department heads to provide some information, and then she fired some of us," Penn said. He was called to Dabbs' office, given a termination letter and escorted back to his office by two cops who watched him gather his things.
He didn't argue with the mayor. "I was leaving a lot of work, but I didn't feel I would be successful with those projects under her leadership. It was an unsettled environment," he said. "The mayor said she would not continue business as usual, and none of us had any understanding of what that meant. We were concerned on a daily basis that someone else would be asked to leave."
There was no severance package and no unemployment, but Penn was lucky. After a few months in private practice, he was hired by Hot Springs as director of utilities. "I'm not distressed by the overall outcome," Penn said. "Hot Springs is a larger system with a larger budget. I'm excited to take on greater responsibility." With Bryant, Penn drew an annual salary of $91,000, but Alderman Henley claims that the city has spent at least $300,000 outsourcing engineering projects since Penn left.
In the KTHV interview, Dabbs called Henley an obstructionist. "Mr. Henley comes to meetings, he votes 'no' on absolutely everything. He voted 'no' on a stop sign in a neighborhood with lots of children in it. ... There's some things you just can't do anything about, and that's one thing I have to live with: Alderman Henley."
The stop sign claim is simply confusing to Henley. "I'm not sure what she's talking about. We don't vote for stop signs," he said.
But he does understand why Dabbs is desperate to depict herself as a conservative Republican. He thinks Bryant's morphing political views represent a microcosm of the state's. "It's become very conservative in Bryant. It's changed along with Arkansas. Arkansas was always a Democratic state, but I believe it's on the forefront of the Republican move right now. And Saline County's made a big move in that way in the last 10 years. Right here and now, they've got a lot of Republicans from Saline County moving to Bryant ... [state Rep.] Ann Clemmer, [former state Rep.] Jeremy Hutchinson, Doyle Webb, all from this area."
Even so, he wonders, how far are the new breed of Bryant Republicans willing to go, and how petty are they willing to be?
Recently an anonymous commenter posted crude personal attacks against Henley and to a lesser degree, Alderman Danny Steele, at Henley's website, ImprovingBryant.com. One of the milder comments, in response to a post on increased water rates, reads: "You guys wouldn't have a problem with this increase if she [Dabbs] had included Rogaine for Danny Steele and Twinkies for Adrian Henley in 2012 budget." Most of the comments aren't printable.
Henley has traced these comments to an IP address belonging to Southwest Power Pool. Brett Hooton, who chaired the Saline County Republican Party until last year, works at Southwest Power Pool, but he has denied posting these comments. Both Henley's lawyer and Southwest Power Pool's lawyer are working to determine the troll.
Despite her professed nonchalance, as soon as Henley announced the recall petition, Mayor Dabbs lined up a series of town hall meetings. During the first one, at First Pentecostal Church, Dabbs seemed visibly relaxed, in snug, boot-cut khakis and a matching blazer. She chatted with constituents, introducing them to her preteen daughter.
According to Kizer, Dabbs is an excellent mother to her two daughters, Emily, 17, and Reagan, 11. "Even as mayor, she comes home at 7:30 and cooks for her children and her family," he said. The newly-elected Dabbs also helped her oldest daughter nab a life-guarding position at the city's Bishop Park, and she slipped city-paid coaches into a park contract for the Bryant Barracudas, her daughter's swim team — a privilege that no other Bryant swim team warranted. (The contract was amended before any coaches were actually hired.)
At First Pentecostal, Reagan was exceptionally composed. She helped attendees with nametags, smiled when appropriate and occasionally riffled through a paperback of "Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry."
Later Dabbs stood in front of the church with a free-handed mic, exchanging public pleasantries with a few aldermen before launching into a pep talk about beautifying parks. A litter-free Bryant is, apparently, a primary goal of her administration.
Dabbs' immediate compatriots — fellow Bryant professionals with young families — are conspicuously absent from both City Council and town hall meetings. But they fill up the stands at Friday night basketball games, in Bryant's clean hyper-lit high school gym.
Stacey Newburn and her husband both work in Little Rock. She's a hairdresser and he's in insurance. They moved to Bryant five years ago in search of better schools. "You get more for your money out here," Newburn said. "And we want our children to be OK playing outside."
Newburn's family is among Bryant's 6.7 percent black population, which is, according to Newburn, a non-issue. "But I do think diversity is increasing," she said. "When we first moved here, there weren't many blacks at all."
Her voice was underscored by incessantly pounding sneakers. Seated alone, she watched ponytailed girls in blue and white shorts fly across the court. In a few minutes, the boys' basketball game would begin. She was there to see her son.
Newburn hadn't heard about the recall petition. "I don't keep up with city government," she explained. "I wait for my husband to tell me if something's going on."
Others are similarly detached.
In the gym's entryway, two Booster Club members — athletic men in their early 40's — sat behind a folding table piled with T-shirts. They shared onion rings and discussed the pros and cons of Bryant.
"There's no industry, it's all retail. There's no town or main street," said Dan Cowart, a representative for Neff sporting goods company. His family moved to Bryant from Little Rock in the mid-'90s.
"I moved here in 1997," said James Scoggins, director of nursing at Arkansas State Hospital. "I liked the quiet and there's not so much traffic, though it is more bustling than it used to be. My wife grew up in Benton, but we chose Bryant because it just seemed to be more active, to be growing better."
"Bryant has grown faster than the city can handle," said Cowart. "Slowly but surely they're working it out, doing some work on the roads."
Scoggins admitted to hearing rumors about the mayor "firing people and misusing funds." But without knowing both sides of the story, he wouldn't sign any petition.
Those who do keep up seem reluctant to speak on record.
"I work for the school," said a woman in the bleachers. "I want to continue to work for the school. But that one, he's opinionated." She indicated a heavyset man intently logging each play on an iPad. "I bet he'll talk."
During the break between third and fourth quarters, the man set his iPad aside, crossed his arms and shook his head firmly. "That woman [Mayor Dabbs] has been harassed enough by the media. I'm not going to say anything. I'm on her side," he huffed.
The early morning patrons at McDonald's aren't afraid to talk. They come in unofficial shifts, wearing buttoned-downs and jeans, nearly filling the right side of the restaurant. Some of them eat and head off to subcontracting jobs. The others — retired truck drivers, dairy farmers and construction workers — linger for hours, discussing everything from the GOP primaries (this bunch is virulently anti-Obama) to the price of eggs and milk.
They don't know the mayor personally, nor do they know Henley, although he did drop by one morning. About half of them signed his petition.
Collectively, these men have a long memory. They moved from Little Rock in the '60s, when everyone knew everyone and metal companies Reynolds and Alcoa were the biggest employers in town.
"I'm proud that McDonald's is here. This used to be nothing but a thicket," said tile-worker Roger Urrey, his blue eyes piercing beneath the brim of a black cowboy hat. "But there were big changes because of the school district, I guess. We've got some Yankees, moved in from up north." He winks. He means Little Rock.
A former volunteer firefighter, Urrey served on the City Council in the mid-1980s under Mayor Dean Boswell Jr. "We kept it in the City Council. We tried to work things out before it got to the public. I think that's the best way," Urrey said.
But Mayor Jill Dabbs operates in a world where the personal is public. Her Internet persona is in parts, sentimental, political and defensive. She openly supports a "Santorium[sic]/Gingrich ticket" and tweets "OMG=Obama Must Go away." Other recent tweets: "Beautiful streets can honor traffic & respect the pedestrian and improve economic sustainability in a community" (tweeted from an Arkansas Municipal League conference) and a retweet: "Leo's may be a bit bossy, but those who know them understand this comes from a source need to do good, not (usually) from an inflated ego."
Her physical persona is a bit more faltering. With the exception of the "gotcha moment," Dabbs rarely raises her voice at council meetings. But her tone often veers between chirpy and snippy, and her expression betrays flashes of rage or panic.
During the public comments section of the Jan. 26 council meeting, a process server presented Dabbs with a packet of legal documents, courtesy of Shayne King's lawyer. There was no mistaking the mayor's momentary shock. Her eyes widened, and there was a barely perceptible delay in the server's prof-ering of the envelope and Dabbs' move to accept it. Dabbs skimmed the documents and recovered quickly — "I've been served," she quipped, flashing another pageant smile. Then Republican city attorney Doyle Webb relieved Republican mayor Jill Dabbs of the envelope, and Dabbs called for the next commenter.