THE ISSUE: The Go Forward Pine Bluff sales tax initiativeTHE IMPACT: The five-eighths cent sales tax is designed to help boost the city’s struggling economy and revive down town, among other goals. Proponents say the plan will help create jobs and put Pine Bluff back on the right track economically. Opponents claim the plan doesn’t include enough to help the city’s poor


Supporters of the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan celebrated late into the night Tuesday after voters approved a five-eighths cent sales tax to fund the initiative. Opponents of the tax expressed disappointment, but vowed to continue pressing the city and the Go Forward Pine Bluff non-profit corporation to spend the money to benefit all residents.


The Go Forward Pine Bluff campaign issued a statement Wednesday thanking people who voted in favor of the tax and for the campaign’s volunteers. It called the Go Forward plan “a blueprint for how Pine Bluff will become a better city to live, work, and raise a family,” and called on citizens to unite behind the plan.


“Whether you supported or opposed the GFPB Plan, now is the time to come together and support Mayor Washington’s theme of ‘One Pine Bluff, Stronger Together,’” the statement read. “We pledge to work the plan, partner with the city and its elected officials, and be accountable with the resources via quarterly reports in the Pine Bluff Commercial. We look forward to the dynamic impact GFPB will cause.”


The Go Forward Pine Bluff task force estimates the tax will cost each household a little more than $15 per month, while raising roughly $4 million per year for seven years. All money for projects that use the tax funds must be approved by the Pine Bluff City Council.


The group hopes to raise roughly $20 million from business groups and grants. Private donors have already contributed $6 million to Go Forward, with the latest, the Trinity Foundation, announcing a $2 million contribution last week. Simmons First Foundation Chairman Tommy May introduced the plan in January, following a year of meetings by a task force of 100 members.


Michael McCray, spokesman for what he has called a diverse group of opponents to the measure that organized under the term “A Better Way Forward,” said passage of the tax was “just the first step in a long journey to rebuild Pine Bluff.”


“The next step will be negotiating the Public-Private ‘partnership agreement’ between the city and whatever lead entity that will be specified,” McCray wrote in an email. “[A Better Way Forward] encourages our citizens to be concerned and engaged with every opportunity to build our future. We definitely want to be at the table—so that we can participate in developing the solutions for our community. We plan on engaging our elected leadership and any other development entity that is tasked with growing and developing our city.”


McCray wrote that debate sparked by Go Forward “has raised the consciousness and awareness of a lot of people about the growth and development of our city. I can only hope that this means more people will get involved and stay involved.”


He said A Better Way Forward will become “a new voice for all of the citizens of Pine Bluff.”


Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, who had publicly supported the tax, said she was “just grateful for the people in Pine Bluff for investing in our future.”


“I will be working closely with the Go Forward Pine Bluff group to make sure that the funds are used wisely,” Washington said.


The mayor said she sees the tax as facilitating an economic boost for the city. She said it was important for Pine Bluff residents now to work together.


“This election has never been about one initiative,” Washington said. “It’s been about one community coming together, working together in a spirit of unity to rebuild our city.”


ELECTION NIGHT DRAMA


The tax passed with nearly 70 percent in favor, according to unofficial election results updated Wednesday by the Jefferson County Election Commission. Of 5,566 total ballots cast, 3,831 votes for cast for the tax, with 1,708 against. There were 2,213 early votes cast, with 1,635 in favor and 571 against. There were also 165 absentee ballots, with 82 for and 83 against.


There were also 27 “under” votes, representing people who cast a ballot but did not make a selection either for or against the tax.


The status of the election was thrown into uncertainty around 8 p.m. Tuesday, after Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stu Soffer announced that some early unofficial results that he had posted had been incorrectly counted. The counting of the ballots was not complete until nearly midnight Tuesday. Soffer and fellow election commissioner Mike Adam repeated the vote-counting process Wednesday in the presence of Pine Bluff Assistant City Attorney Joe Childers and a Commercial reporter.


Soffer and Adam make up the Republican majority of the three-person election commission. Democrat Cynthia Sims was out of town for Tuesday night’s vote, Soffer said.


Will Fox, an interim election coordinator hired by Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, was present at the election commission office Tuesday, but Soffer and Adam refused to work with him. The refusal dates back months to a dispute between the Republican majority of the commission and Wilkins, a Democrat.


Soffer and Adam maintain that election commissioners should have input over the hiring of an election coordinator, which is a county employee who oversees the operation of an election. Wilkins has relied on past practice that county judges have the power to hire election coordinators.


Rather than work with Fox, Soffer and Adam coordinated Tuesday’s special election themselves. In addition to lacking an election coordinator, the commissioners conducted the election without an employee trained to operate the vote-counting software, which is called Election Reporting Manager.


An expert in the software who had worked on previous elections decided to stop earlier this year, Soffer said, and the worker being trained as his replacement informed the commission a month or two ago that she would not be able to work on the night of the June 13 special election.


The early and absentee ballots were uploaded to the vote-counting software with no problem Tuesday, Soffer said in an email to the press Wednesday. But then, auditors who were manually counting the Election Day ballots made a mistake, which caused a retraction of some unofficial results that Soffer had posted. Soffer and Adam later experienced problems uploading the electronic ballots into the vote-counting software.


“It took a while but we finally got it right with the 11:37 PM printout,” Soffer wrote. “I have some [Election Reporting Manager software] experience and Mike [Adam] knows computers.


Asked Wednesday whether having election commissioners involved in vote-counting is problematic, Soffer and Adam said it was not.


“It happens all over the state,” Adam said. “[Election commissioners] count the votes. Every county does it somewhat differently, or has the option to do it. It’s important we get the right results.”


Janine Perry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville who specializes in state and local government, said that having a commissioner involved in counting the votes sounded problematic.


“It’s certainly good news that the outcome wasn’t close,” Perry said. “If it had been close, the consequences, I think, could have been quite serious.


“By tradition, party officials [who serve as election commissioners] are there to observe, but not to conduct elections. So, while it may have seemed like a petty technicality to some, if it injected any doubt into the integrity of the election process, that’s cause for concern. The layers are there for a reason. So, getting an election coordinator hired and in place… should be first priority in Jefferson County.”


Dustin McDaniel, an attorney and former Arkansas attorney general retained by Wilkins during the dispute, said the arguments amounted to “petty squabbles” and that the problems experienced Tuesday were predictable.


“I agree with Mr. Soffer there’s not enough votes in question to throw the election into question, but people who serve as election commissioners should be more concerned with getting results done quickly, efficiently, transparently and accurately, than guarding some legally unsupported turf war,” McDaniel said. “Judge Wilkins is disappointed that his predictions have come true in this matter. He worked diligently to try to prevent this very outcome. And he is pleased that the election results, if not the election process, are not in question.”