By identical 7-1 votes, members of the Pine Bluff City Council on Monday approved allowing Mayor Shirley Washington to sign a contract with local architect Fred Reed to work on the Merrill Community Center redesign project.

The proposed ordinance to waive competitive bidding and hire Reed was up for its first reading, but council members, with the exception of Alderwoman Thelma Walker, voted to suspend the rules and place it on a second and third reading before voting for approval, with Walker again voting no.

During her campaign for reelection, Walker opposed remodeling the center and called for the construction of a new building. She doubled down on the issue Monday after the mayor said that among the things to be replaced will be the building’s refrigerators. After all, the mayor contended, people who build or remodel a home usually buy new refrigerators.

Walker was beaten in the June runoff by Joni Alexander, who won the Democratic Party nomination and will face Republican Jesse Turner in November.

Walker was joined in her opposition by former alderman and community activist Jack Foster, who spoke before the meeting.

Foster noted that Reed had sent Ryan Watley, the CEO of Go Forward Pine Bluff, a letter saying that he would do the work for 8 percent of the construction costs with a maximum of $100,000, which is less than the normal 10 percent fee charged for similar work.

“Go Forward Pine Bluff is not part of city government,” Foster said.

He also mentioned that the city had built a new animal shelter for dogs and cats but wasn’t willing to spend the money on a new building at the Merrill Center.

“You’re hollering about kids killing each other,” Foster said. “What kind of message are you sending remodeling a building that is 90 years old and it wasn’t that good to begin with?”

Foster also said the city was “taking orders from Go Forward Pine Bluff. It shouldn’t be that way. Go Forward is not a city commission. Stop drinking the kool-aid.”

Alderman Bruce Lockett, who has traditionally opposed waiving competitive bidding, said that while he would like to see a new facility, “The kids love that building.”

Lockett also said that he would not be a part of something that called for waiting. He said that repairs should be made to the old building since there is currently no proposal on the table to construct a new one.

“The kids in Pine Bluff need a safe place,” Lockett said. “We’ve got to do something for the kids, and we’ve got to do it today. We’ve got to pass this today.”

After the ordinance was approved, Alderman Bill Brumett said he would like to be listed as a co-sponsor, along with Lockett, aldermen Steven Mays and Win Trafford, the members of the Public Works Committee who initially approved the ordinance to be presented to the council.

They were then joined by aldermen Lloyd Holcomb Jr., Glen Brown Jr. and Donald Hatchett, who also signed on as co-sponsors.

Though not on the original agenda, the council on Monday approved a $15,000 budget adjustment to pay for air conditioning units at the Waterfront building in Regional Park. Parks and Recreation Interim Director Trudy Redus said that air conditioning units in the building failed over the weekend and the building is booked for parties again this week. She also said two units located at the Merrill Center had failed and will find money in the parks budget to pay for repairing those units.

In other business Monday, the council approved 8-0 an ordinance to allow the mayor to contract with law firms involved in the lawsuit filed against online travel booking companies who were ordered by a court to pay gross receipt taxes for rooms they book in Pine Bluff hotels and motels. The law firms will file motions to intervene in the case on behalf of the city for general damages in an effort to recover the money.

Two resolutions authorizing the mayor to contract with companies to obtain a modernized bus fare collection system, and for software, products and services for the transit department were also approved.