The Pine Bluff City Council is considering abolishing the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission amid the controversial recent resignation of the city’s parks director. The chairman of the commission said later that he opposes the council’s move.
The council considered voting on the issue at its regular meeting Wednesday, but lack of unanimous support for an immediate vote scuttled the proposal.
Instead, the council’s Public Works Committee will examine the proposed legislation to abolish the commission, then likely forward the legislation to the council for a vote.
Alderman Bruce Lockett, who, along with Alderman Steven Mays and Alderwoman Thelma Walker, voted against holding an immediate vote, said he wanted more discussion on the matter. A proposed ordinance cannot be added to a City Council agenda without unanimous support from the council.
“[The ordinance] hadn’t gone through committee, and I feel that all legislation go through committee so that all interested parties are heard,” Lockett said. “I didn’t want to blindside somebody without giving time for discussion.”
Members of the Parks and Recreation Commission include chairman Omar Allen, Rodney Holcomb, Krandon Henry, Harold Clark, Robert Jackson, Quincy Pridgeon, Tina Owens, Alexandra Kosmitis and Reginald Johnson. The commission oversees the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which until recently was headed by former director April Layher.
Layher resigned June 1, roughly two weeks after the commission sent her a letter on May 16 suspending her without pay and accusing her of violating federal law by failing to pay overtime to “non-exempt” employees. Layher denied the accusation, saying she had never intentionally violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. She called her suspension without pay “unjust and excessive.”
Layher said she believed the allegations stemmed from hiring two employees on Aug. 1, 2016. She said she was not informed of the allegations at the time they were made. The commission voted to appoint Trudy Redus, assistant parks director, as interim director until the position is filled.
Vickie Conaway, director of the City of Pine Bluff Human Resources Department, said she had been contacted by parks employees who “had an issue with not being paid on holidays.” Commissioner Allen later contacted her on the employees’ behalf, Conaway said.
Layher said the workers had been paid for their overtime work, and “the person in charge of doing our payroll missed it.” Layher said she planned to retire and spend more time with her family. She said she did not plan to sue the city.
Under a proposed ordinance abolishing the commission, oversight of the Parks and Recreation Department would be transferred to the mayor’s office, a similar arrangement to most other city departments. Mayor Shirley Washington said that under the new arrangement, a parks advisory board would replace the commission in offering citizen input. It would not, however, have the power to hire and fire employees as the current commission does.
Washington said some aldermen had been urging her to abolish the commission from the time she was inaugurated in January.
“I didn’t have any thoughts because I didn’t know what was best,” Washington said. “It seemed like, when we talked to them, the last few weeks… with April leaving, and what was going on with parks and rec, we thought we’d be better with an advisory board. It’s not that we wouldn’t have citizen input. They’ve done this in many cities.”
The proposed ordinance was sponsored by Aldermen Lloyd Holcomb Jr. and Glen Brown Jr.
“We’ve had some issues over the years that I have noticed,” Holcomb said. “We just need to try to correct these issues. It’s nothing personal against anyone, we just want to move the city to a better situation.
“[The commission is] being funded by the city, and therefore having an advisory board by the city, I think we should have some input. With that being said, with things that have gone on in the recent past, there’s a change that needs to take place.”
Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Omar Allen defended the current organizational structure and said what was most needed is greater funding for parks and recreation.
“I still support the parks and rec commission the way it’s set up,” Allen said. “I don’t see any changes that could possibly happen if it was under the mayor if you’re not going to invest in appropriated funds that need to be invested in it.”
Allen said the parks department “probably took a 25-percent cut in the budget” over the last decade, while its needs are great. Hundreds of kids play each day at the Merrill Community Center “in extreme heat,” Allen said. “We invest more money in an air-conditioned animal shelter than we invest in our kids. Campaigns are always being ran on the backs of our children, but the budget is always being cut to our parks department.”
The Parks and Recreation Commission is currently “doing great things” in the search for a new director to replace Layher, Allen said. “If you give us the funds, we can make things happen.”
In other news, Larry Matthews, director of the city’s Economic and Community Development Department, announced the city would receive $562,973 in federal community development block grant funding. The funding is about $7,000 more than the city received last year. Matthews said the department’s home budget is likely to increase between $200,000 and $300,000 after several years of staying flat. The home budget includes home buyer assistance, new construction and home rehabilitations.
The council also passed a resolution authorizing the mayor to execute a contract with D & J Iron & Aggregates to improve drainage on West 28th Avenue.
The resolution authorized the mayor to negotiate and enter into a contract not to exceed $219,325.89.
The project will result in the removal of 750 feet of deteriorated corrugated metal drainage pipe, to be replaced with reinforced concrete drainage pipe. The area stretches along West 28th between Patricia Drive and Kimberly Street. Matthews said parts of the current pipes have corroded and collapsed, causing flooding in the area.
Matthews said the project is likely to take 60 days.