Alumni members of the nine historically African American international Greek lettered fraternities and sororities (Divine Nine) worked in conjunction with the Pine Bluff branch of the NAACP and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel to sponsor a ballot issue initiatives' review and candidate's forum on Thursday, Oct. 4, at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
Tamika Edwards of Philander Smith College and Kymara Seals of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel explained ballot issues one through five to the public in layman's terms to provide clarity on each issue.
Of the five issues, the audience was most concerned about Issue 2, which asks voters to change Article 3 of the Arkansas Constitution adding that a voter must present certain valid photographic identification when casting a ballot in person or casting an absentee ballot.
Some audience members argued that Issue 2 is a waste of time.
“This is a terrible bill for the fact that we already don't have an issue with voter fraud here in Arkansas, so why are we and our legislators even spending time debating something that's not an issue anyway? There's a whole lot of other things that they need to be discussing,” Pine Bluff Police Department Chief Deputy Billy Elliott said.
State Representative Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff), who was in the audience waiting for the candidate forum portion of the program, interjected, “Not your legislators.”
The University of Arkansas Research and Extension reported that there has been no voter fraud found, with the latest research findings dating 2017-18.
Flowers stood and helped offer some clarity on the bill for those worried that they would not be able to successfully cast their vote in November's election.
“I just wanted to share something to alleviate any confusion. In the last session, there was a voter ID bill that did pass out of the legislature, and it's still being challenged. The Supreme Court just heard it. Judge (Alice) Grey struck it down. We're still waiting to hear whether or not that voter ID law, which is a still a little bit more liberal than the one that will be on the ballot, (will) change the Constitution, but it's still bad,” Flowers said.
In May, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the state could enforce its voter ID law during the primary elections. Although Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray granted a preliminary injunction to block the law from going into effect before the primaries, the state Supreme Court ordered a stay on Gray's ruling.
Flowers urged the audience to stay abreast of any updates concerning that bill between now and Nov. 6 via the news and social media.
During the forum portion, candidates seeking the offices of state representative District 17, Jefferson County justice of the peace District 1 and Pine Bluff City Council Ward 1 alderman were given between one and two minutes to answer questions from the public, with Judge Earnest Brown Jr. as the moderator. The candidates seeking office are:
• State Representative District 17: Democratic incumbent Vivian Flowers and Libertarian Gregory Maxwell. Maxwell was not in attendance;
• Jefferson County justice of the peace District 1: Democrat Alfred Carroll Sr. and Libertarian James Michael Hood;
• Pine Bluff City Council Ward 1 alderman: Democrat Joni Alexander and Republican Jesse Turner.
Each candidate was given three minutes to introduce themselves to the public before the questions began. Turner used part of his introduction to question the $1 million budget that Alexander has said she managed, setting the tone of the correspondence between Alexander and himself.
“My opponent has stated that she has maintained a $1 million dollar budget, and tonight I hope she can explain who gave her the authority over the $1 million of city money,” Turner said.
Alexander, who worked in the administration of former Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, used part of her introduction time to respond.
“My opponent just mentioned something about $1 million; not only (does it show) his ignorance to city government but his ignorance to his opponent. That $1 million was referring to the $1 million that was given to a non-profit in which I was the executive director over and managed the money. As far as the city, the City Council is legislative, not executive. They make the budget. They do not appoint who runs the budget. In the mayor's office, not only did I oversee her budget but also no check could leave city hall or be signed without my approval or the mayor's approval, so that's what that $1 million is concerning,” Alexander said.
Each candidate was then given two minutes to respond to questions submitted to the moderator.
Most of the night's questions were surrounding activities for the youth, plans to move the city forward and the proposed casino.
When the alderman candidates were asked what type of programs and activities will be put in place for the youth, Turner suggested that nothing changes, but rather the focus be put on reducing crime.
“We need to focus on crime, because crime is hostile to business development. If we are going to retain businesses here, if we are going to develop businesses here the first thing we must do is get crime under control so that people that want to do that can locate here. ShotSpotter will do that,” Turner said.
ShotSpotter is a program that places small microphones throughout a city so that shots can be heard before they are reported to police. In theory, it can reduce crime by allowing police to know where the most shots are originating from in the community, authorities have said.
“The reason that you and I have yet to pull the trigger is not because we don't own guns but because we function off principles that are greater than our pride. Until we get our kids to a place where they know how to respond, sometimes just talking to them isn't enough if we aren't teaching them how to react in the moment. And, if anything, that should be our focus,” Alexander said.
All candidates expressed an opinion on the casino measure, and all made mention of it regardless of what question they were asked. Alexander shared the same perspective as Flowers, who was asked directly for her opinion.
“I am not opposed to it. I am not for it. I think that we have an opportunity to take advantage of the economic development opportunities if it is done right,” Flowers said.
“If it can be done in a way that taps into the needs of our downtown, our convention center, our convention center hotel so that we can grow downtown into a tourism destination. There's a lot of talk about keeping our money here.
“What if we don't establish some sort of partnership where the city benefits outside of what happens with the casino and the taxes? John Berrey (a representative of the Quapaw Tribe, which is proposing building a casino in Pine Bluff) is a good man from everything that I've seen. But he is not from Arkansas now. They have tribal lineage here, but they are in another state and the profits would go to Oklahoma just like the profits from Oaklawn go to St. Louis and the profits from Southland go to New York.”
Keeping with the theme of making Pine Bluff a tourist destination, the candidates for Ward 1 alderman were asked what initiatives are on the table in conjunction with Go Forward Pine Bluff. Both Alexander and Turner said that they support The Urban Renewal Agency's plan to tear down dilapidated houses.
“As far as the housing initiative with Go Forward, I believe we should have something in place where we repair houses,” Turner said.
“I believe that in neighborhoods where the housing stock is not good so, for instance, in the fourth ward. There should be funds available to repair those houses so that they will look nice because no one wants to live in a community where the housing stock is run down, so if a land bank can be established to get money to build new homes and rehab houses over there, then I think people will be willing to come and live and build over there. It is a shame that the housing stock over there by the university looks the way it looks.”
Alexander explained that the dangers of possible asbestos when tearing down dilapidated houses.
“If you don't have those houses inspected, you have to assume that it has asbestos and it costs so much money. I know the hotel on Harding Street will almost cost our annual budget to tear down, so I am in full support of the Urban Renewal Agency,” Alexander said.
Another ballot issues initiative will be held at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in the STEM building at 6 p.m. Oct. 9. It will be a two-hour initiative that will cover casino and gaming. Berrey, a representative of the Quapaw tribe, will be present to answer questions.