OPINION | EDITORIAL: Go Forward needs hard look backward

If voters gently pushed the door closed in May, they slammed it with an attitude on Tuesday.

In May, the Go Forward Pine Bluff-sponsored taxes failed but the margins were tantalizingly close. The five-eighths-cent tax, which would have funded Go Forward projects for another seven years starting late next year, was rejected by only 117 votes in May. But on Tuesday, the "no" votes were 469, more than four times the previous thumbs down.

A public safety tax had been even closer. The three-eighths-cent tax that would have been levied in perpetuity was rejected by a mere 20 votes last time. On Tuesday, 203 voters said "no," more than 10 times the May turndown.

So what happened?

Without exit polling, it would be hard to say, but one can read the tea leaves and make some educated guesses.

The Rev. Jesse Turner opined in a column on Saturday that the missing secret sauce was that the city's clergy had not been asked for its support. Perhaps. But we somehow doubt that reverends were sitting in political neutral just waiting for Team Go Forward to ask for their support or that reverends, for that matter, operate as a bloc. Some of the ones who were speaking out, for instance, were decidedly against both taxes.

As it turned out, Go Forward was hit by a perfect storm of anti sentiment. In some ways, they were their own worst enemy, with their own people acting in foolish ways in public and, as a group, attempting to nudge themselves into the limelight as a way to show they had made more meaningful accomplishments than a close reading of the record would indicate.

Then there was Maurice Taggart who, even in death, became a problem. There were the scores of charges filed against him for allegedly stealing money from the Urban Renewal Agency, the public portion of a duad that includes Go Forward, even as Go Forward has tried to distance itself from Urban Renewal.

After his death, there were the recordings of Taggart talking to this newspaper, recordings in which he provided unvarnished commentary on how Go Forward operates.

And there were those chapters that showed that Go Forward wielded enormous authority and was able to move city money around without supporting paperwork, as if Go Forward was an equal partner with the mayor's office, which many suggest it is.

And let's not forget the city being called on the carpet by state auditors to explain haphazard spending practices; that didn't help either. One of the topics was that Urban Renewal let $667,000 slip away in the alleged Taggart scheme. That episode didn't have anything directly to do with Go Forward, but it added to the bitter political stew that Go Forward found itself in.

There were other negative revelations, those that were brought to light before the May vote, such as the Urban Renewal failures downtown, but even six months later, the all-consuming narrative was that Go Forward in six-plus years had yet to finish a single public project -- despite the millions in tax dollars collected. Even a go-kart track, which was supposed to be finished this fall, has been pushed to spring.

In the end, there also seemed to be both some political frustration or even anger involved in Tuesday's vote as well as an enthusiasm gap. People could be heard saying that the first "no" in May should have been sufficient and that a return to the polls was unnecessary and an annoyance.

As for the lack of enthusiasm, almost the same number of people voted against the five-eighths-cent tax this time as before, but more than 400 fewer people voted for it this time than in May. Did those voters switch sides or did they simply stay home, not thrilled by the prospect of going to the polls to support a cause that they now did not support wholeheartedly?

The reason special elections have gotten such a bad reputation is because so few people vote, meaning a tiny sliver of the public has sway over whether something passes. That can be a handy circumstance if it works and only "your" voters get out to the polls to pass a school millage or a sales tax. In the case of the Go Forward-aligned taxes, the situation backfired, not once but twice. Not many people voted, but those that did gave a resounding thumbs down to both taxes.

As for perhaps some anger involved, the public safety tax failed in a much bigger way on Tuesday than it did in November, despite the fact that the more recent proposal had gotten public support from firefighter organizations. But it was as if the public, in turning down the five-eighths-cent tax also turned down the three-eighths-cent tax because it was the same distrusted outfit pushing both. With apologies to Shakespeare, but it was as if voters, like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, said "a plague on both your houses" or in this case, your taxes.

There are, even now, smart people and groups mulling what the next steps will be for Pine Bluff. The thinking seems to be that Pine Bluff needs a tax of some sort – just not one that is under the control -- virtual or otherwise -- of an outside group. If there's a plus in the rise and fall of Go Forward, it is the map showing, in the end, what path not to chart -- and one that shows the need for a heavy dose of transparency and accountability, both of which Go Forward lacked.

These sales tax votes have taken their toll on the city. It's been a wearying thing but perhaps a good one. People have been leaning into the debate about what Pine Bluff needs and where it should head and how it should get there. Those are good discussions to have, and the more people who are caught up in them the better.

To those who say that ditching Go Forward is akin to ditching progress, we say nonsense. Pine Bluff's future has always been wrapped tightly around the optimism and enthusiasm of its people. There is a better path out there, and now that the way is clear, that energy can go to work to find it.