The Pine Bluff City Council on Monday voted to abolish the city's Parks and Recreation Commission and transfer authority over hiring of employees and spending to the mayor's office. The council also voted to authorize the city collector and city finance director to destroy records and voted against a measure that would have required the finance director to keep track of collections and expenditures of the new Go Forward Pine Bluff five-eighths cent sales tax.
Typically, the council waits until a piece of proposed legislation is read aloud at three public meetings before voting on it. But the council on Monday voted 6-3 to suspend that rule in order to vote on the proposal to abolish the Parks and Recreation Commission. Suspending the rules requires six votes, and Mayor Shirley Washington provided the necessary vote after opposition from aldermen Bruce Lockett and Steven Mays and Alderwoman Thelma Walker.
Lockett opposed voting on the legislation before it was considered by one of the council's committees, such as the Public Works Committee. He noted that all legislation is supposed to go through committees before being voted on by the council. Washington said she had come into office in January with a neutral view to the parks and recreation commission, but gradually changed her mind after observing “the inconsistent manner in which this commission handled its affairs.”
Washington said that she conducted research and found that “this was a pattern of operation for parks and recreation going back several years. Based on these findings, I recommend that the commission be abolished.”
The nine-member parks commission has traditionally had the power to hire and fire employees, and discretion over spending the budget it is assigned by the city. The commission recently drew controversy when its members accused the former parks department director, April Layher, of violating federal law by failing to pay two employees for overtime work. Layher denied that she had knowingly violated the law, and resigned June 1.
The commission voted during executive session at a meeting July 10 to make interim director Trudy Redus the permanent head of the department. Sixty other applicants applied, but none were interviewed. Three commissioners later contacted the Commercial to say they had voted against Redus' appointment but were not given a chance to record their votes publicly after coming out of executive session. The lack of a public vote to confirm the action taken during executive session appeared to violate state law.
Washington said Monday she felt the hire of Redus was done “hastily,” noting that none of the other 60 candidates were interviewed. The council voted 5-3 to abolish the commission. Under the ordinance, a parks and recreation board comprised of citizens will replace the commission. The board will have advisory input with the parks department director but not hiring and firing and budgetary powers, Washington said.
The council voted 5-3 against a resolution proposed by Mays that would require the city's finance director to track and give monthly and annual reports of collections and expenditures from the recently passed Go Forward Pine Bluff five-eighths cent sales tax. Alderman Donald Hatchett, one of the members voting against, said the city already keeps track of its expenditures and he didn't want to “duplicate” those efforts.
The council also voted to authorize the destruction of records by the city collector and city finance director. Finance Director Steve Miller said the records needed to be destroyed because they were outdated and the city does not have the storage space for them.
Wil Jenkins, an owner of property in downtown Pine Bluff, was named to the city's Civic and Auditorium Complex Commission. Several citizens urged the council to allocate $400,000 for renovations to the Merrill Community Center. The center serves more than 100 youth per day, several speakers said, and is badly outdated.
Other public speakers urged the city to conduct a study of flooding in the Deerfield subdivision south of I-530. Mild rainfall makes it difficult for residents to access their homes, several homeowners said. Washington said the city was aware of the problem and taking concerns seriously.