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Gene Fortson opposes end to at-large city directors, won't run again in 2020 

Also says infrastructure problems need to be addressed.

click to enlarge FORTSON: Fears elimination of at-large city director positions would lead to too much "my ward, my people" thinking on the board. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • FORTSON: Fears elimination of at-large city director positions would lead to too much "my ward, my people" thinking on the board.

During his 12 years as an at-large city director, Gene Fortson has learned that the city board is a “changing organism,” one influenced both by the mayor and by the issues facing Little Rock. “The city and society’s progress probably delineates as much as anything [else] how the board chemistry works,” he said. As Mayor Frank Scott’s administration begins making changes at City Hall, Fortson says he’s looking forward to working with the city’s leaders to determine the future of the at-large positions, increase revenue to alleviate a constricted city budget and make Little Rock the “safest city its size, anywhere.”

Scott has said he’ll seek to eliminate the board’s at-large positions in favor of more ward-specific representation. Fortson disagrees with Scott on this, and not just because he’s an at-large director. “I think it gives a unique balance between ward politics and seeing the city as a whole,” Fortson said. “The proper use, I think, of the at-large directors is sometimes to provide a balance and maybe more impetus for citywide needs that may not necessarily receive the same emphasis from individual ward directors on a daily basis. And I think that’s sort of the division of powers.”

Fortson referenced a Hendrix College study that found a move from citywide at-large races to a system in which representatives are elected based solely on geographic wards would result in more minorities and women being elected to the board.

“Traditionally, one of the arguments for doing away with the at-large [positions] was that minority candidates could not be elected,” he said.

But recent elections in Little Rock are indicative of a shift in access to positions of power, according to Fortson.

“Well, I think Frank Scott’s election, Terri Hollingsworth’s election as the county clerk, [and] Eric Higgins’ election as sheriff shows maybe those days are past, that a properly financed and a well organized and an attractive minority candidate can do just as well as anyone else citywide,” he said. “I think that old argument that was used [negatively against] the at-large [positions] does not really have the validity on paper [that] it may have had in the past.”

He added that because research on the at-large positions focuses solely on “who got elected and how they got elected,” he’d call for “credible research” on the voting history of at-large directors. This research, according to Fortson, would dispel the notion that the at-large directors all vote together and in opposition to minorities.

That at-large directors vote against the interests of minorities is “not true,” he said. “Somebody needs to look at a five-year or ten-year history of voting patterns and you’ll see that [the] three at-large [directors] are all over the ballpark, not agreeing with each other, and you’ll find that the three at-large [directors] have variously, at various opportunities, worked with board directors to achieve different things.”

He said the 2014 construction of the Little Rock Police Department’s 12th Street Substation is an example of this cooperation between at-large directors and other city directors.

“The 12th Street station that Ken Richardson was pushing so hard … never would have happened without assistance from me and other at-large directors, because it was a lot of money,” he said. “And that was a lot of investment in that ward. Other wards thought, well, wait a minute, they’re going to put $12 million in here? How much of that can I get? Which is their job in representing their ward, but there’s a balance.”

This balance between a city director’s concern for his or her ward and a larger vision for the city is a difficult one, according to Fortson, and it becomes frustrating when directors exclusively focus on problems in their wards.

“The approach of ‘my ward, my people,’ if carried to the extreme, we would resurface this road in my ward if I can get the funds to do it, right up to your ward, and then you get there [to your ward] and you get potholes,” he said. “It doesn’t take care of the city as a whole when you do that.”

Fortson, 82, said he won’t be running for re-election when his term ends in December 2020. He also said he supports and would prefer younger representation on the city board.

“I go back in my career, [and] I tried to hire a lot of young people in management positions because, for the most part, they did things better than the old folks did,” he said. “I think we need a mixture. I think the average age of the board is not reflective of the average age of the city. The average age of Little Rock is getting younger. The median age here is 36 or 37, so to be reflective of the city, the leadership needs to be around that age, too, or else be old folks who are adaptable.”

A former CEO of both Worthen Bank and Trust and Stebbins and Roberts Inc., Fortson said he understands Scott’s embrace of the strong mayor role as CEO of the city.

“Coming from the private sector, I think he mirrored a lot of what you do there, and that is [that] the CEO has certain functions he deals with on a direct basis, but actually your chief operating officer runs the whole city from a day-to-day implementation standpoint,” Fortson said. “It’s an interesting structure, it’s new to the city, but I can understand where he’s coming from, and I think it can be an effective way to operate.”

Fortson said Scott’s decision to take control of six city departments that previously reported to City Manager Bruce Moore (finance, fire, human resources, planning, police and public works) will allow Scott to be “more hands-on” in the areas of the city he “views as critical to what he wants to do,” and, as with anything new, it will take time to adjust to the new structure.

The board is a “synergistic-cooperative type of thing,” according to Fortson, and an ever-changing one.

“There’s the evolutionary process,” he said. “An organizational chart is something two dimensional on a wall or on a sheet of paper. Six months from now, if you sit down and take a look at how that organizational chart functions between him and the various players, then you’ll know it may functionally look a little bit different from the way he draws it, although that’s just because it evolves that way. Things don’t stay static very long.”

Nor should they, Fortson added. “Not in business, not in the academic world, and not in government,” he said. “It’s got to reflect the real world in which we live [and] the needs you have.”

***

Infrastructure problems such as potholes, aging plumbing systems and crumbling or nonexistent sidewalks are a main area of concern for the city, and Fortson said an increase in the city’s revenue is needed to begin fixing these problems.

Like Ward 4 City Director Capi Peck, Fortson said he hopes state legislation that would require internet merchants to charge sales tax from sales in Arkansas will help restore more operating revenue to the city’s budget.

Fortson compared navigating the budget management of a city in a constant state of flux to “punching a marshmallow.”

“It won’t stay punched,” he said. “It comes back. That’s one of the joys of being involved in it, because you hope to try to help solve those problems. And I think … we sometimes disagree on things, [but] everybody on that board, the mayor especially, wants to solve them. … Finance is something that’s always intrigued me because it’s part of my background. You’ve got so many dollars, and that’s it. And people are wanting more police, they want this, they want that, they want a new fire station, and you can only go so far with those dollars.”

Asked if he supports Scott’s plan to increase the LRPD police force by 25 officers per year for the next four years, Fortson said the city doesn’t have “spare money” and would need to reallocate dollars to do so.

He added that while he doesn’t think there is a specific number of policeman that would be the “correct amount” for reducing crime in Little Rock, he does believe community-based policing is key to both reducing crime and restoring the relationship between police and citizens who don’t trust the force.

Fortson said he also believes the next police chief should be a candidate who understands and respects Little Rock and its communities.

“He or she needs to know the city,” he said. “They need to be somebody who can lead that force of however many we have and make sure that they are representative and responsive to the community. They need to be somebody who makes sure that the city and the police department are not adversarial.”

According to Fortson, a key element to the “well-being” of Little Rock is the restored local control of the Little Rock School District, but like his board peers Peck and Ward 3 Director Kathy Webb, he said the best tool of the board is its voice.

“We never had any input before [control] moved, and we don’t have any input now,” he said. “Getting it back here is important, and I would hope that as we continue to meet the criteria to improve the schools, that should increase the pressure to return it to local control and have a new, locally elected school board.”

In addition to returning stability to teachers, students and parents of the LRSD who are experiencing “a lot of unknowns,” Fortson said local control of the district will enhance “quality of life” in Little Rock. Fortson said the city has an “inferiority complex” that prevents it from talking about “what we really offer.”

“For those who choose to take advantage of it, we’ve got tremendous cultural and recreational opportunities,” he said. “If the Sun Belt is where you want to be, Little Rock is the buckle. We’re right in the center, and there’s so much available to you in so many different directions.”

Fortson said this is why, despite opportunities to leave Little Rock during his career, he never did. He now looks forward to younger folks running for office and wants them to get involved in city government.

“I encourage people in their 30s to get active and run for office,” he said. “If you don’t want to run for office, get involved. Do something. If you don’t like what’s going on, don’t talk to me about it, go out in the world and do something.”

Fortson said he plans to stay involved in the Little Rock community, even if it’s not as an at-large director.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “I have a high energy level, and I have good health and a lot of interests, and I assume I’m still mentally acute. So as long as I can do that, I’m going to stay active doing something. If it’s not this, I’ll do something else.”
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