Little Rock mayor Mark Stodola's only opponent this election season is a last-minute filer who is head of the local effort to legalize marijuana and who has made several unsuccessful runs for office. But Stodola is in an unenviable position nevertheless.
Stodola, as the city's official cheerleader, must put forth a positive message about the state of things, one that stresses the advances the city has made during his first term as the city's first "strong mayor."
But he's been mayor during a time of repeated cuts in the city budget, thanks to the growing cost of services and the worst economy the country has experienced in decades. Little Rock is a city that a former mayor describes as "losing ground" and "running out of fuel." Stodola knows, as surely the city board of directors does, that he's got a city sales tax increase campaign ahead of him. He will have to make the argument that unless Little Rock can come up with new revenues, it's got nowhere to go but down.
And while he doesn't say so, he surely wants to clarify that other ambiguity that marks his first four-year term in office, the hybrid mayor-city manager form of government that puts him a step removed from directly implementing change.
In 2007, voters said yes to giving the mayor new powers: He has veto power over city board actions, he has the ability to appoint boards and commissions, and the city manager and city attorney serve at his pleasure, sort of — he can't fire them without the approval of the board of directors.
The vote also provided for a salary in the six figures for a newly full-time mayor. Stodola makes $160,000.
The city's other top administrator, City Manager Bruce Moore, makes $168,920.
Some see that as an administration that is top-heavy, though the mayor and city manager like to compare their situation to that of a company with a CEO (the mayor) and the COO (city manager).
If you ask Stodola what we have to show for the new government plan, he'll give you lots of answers. He points to the fact that crime is down — 54 percent in the case of homicides — since he took office, and says it's partly thanks to his support of PIT (Prevention, Intervention and Treatment) programs and Quiet Nights special policing units, paid for with federal dollars.
He says he "engineered" the compromise with the Little Rock Zoo, War Memorial Stadium and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences that sold park property to UAMS (for an amount still under negotiation). Indeed, the former minor league baseball park at the heart of this swap still silently rots, a growing eyesore.
He notes the location of the $150 million Welspun pipe plant here (after getting a $2 million incentive from the state), Windstream's decision to stay (after a $5.5 million incentive from the state and in no small measure due to its pre-existing footprint here). Millions of dollars in federal stimulus grants to revitalize neighborhoods south of Interstate 630. A new soccer field out west, on land previously owned by Central Arkansas Water.
He's worked with the new Land Bank Commission, whose members he and city directors appointed, to obtain and resell abandoned properties around Central High School and other areas.
Less intriguing is his boast that he triggered a study of downtown redevelopment — one that joined other studies on a shelf somewhere. He also said he is enlisting the Department of Correction to help get public areas cleaned up. He put cigarette butt containers in the River Market district along Clinton Avenue.
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