Legislature adjourns with last-minute bill to overhaul Little Rock’s government style

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 772 views 

The 92nd General Assembly on Wednesday (April 24) adjourned the 2019 legislative session by approving a single last-minute bill that will allow Little Rock to revamp its current city manager run administration and move toward a mayor-city council style of government.

In a rare parliamentary procedure to bring Senate Bill 179 back to the floor, Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, asked his fellow senators to suspend the rules and take up his lone bill that was pushed out of the Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committee earlier in the day. The Ferndale senator stressed that his proposal would simply allow, not force, the City of Little Rock to consider changing its current form of government.

Before SB 179 was taken up, however, a perplexed Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, asked the body if Senate has ever taken up a bill during a largely ceremonial “sine die” adjournment of a legislative session.

“I don’t remember us ever doing this – does anybody ever remember us doing that? I remember us talking about it a time or two, but I don’t think we ever did,” said the South Arkansas senator who has served in the Senate since 2009.

In response to Teague’s question and other queries from Sens. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and Blake Johnson, R-Corning – who represent Senate districts with cities that also have a city manager form of government – Johnson assured the body that his measure would only impact the state’s largest city.

“(This) is totally permissive. It only changes one new methodology if a city manager form of government changed and there is also a threshold of 50,000 … So, it is essentially a Little Rock bill,” said Johnson.

But Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, further quizzed Johnson on why Little Rock officials couldn’t achieve the same end by simply putting a similar proposal on the ballot, calling it a “local issue.”

“Why do we need to set this in law? The cities can do this themselves,” said the Garland County senator.

Johnson replied, “The biggest change, senator, is it would allow the city board of Little Rock, by a vote of the board, to refer this to the voters rather than only being done through the petition process. It simply adds, if there is consensus on the city board, to refer this to the voters.”

After that back-and-forth, the bill almost died on the floor after the 35-member body suspended rules and voted to amend SB 179 to concur with an earlier version of the proposal approved by the House on April 10. By a tight vote of 24-3, the amended bill received the necessary two-third votes for the Senate to take up the measure on the floor. Once there, it was quickly approved by a final tally of 31-3.

After the final gavel, Johnson said he made the unusual decision of bringing SB 179 after a conversation with Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, who requested that he amend the proposal to make it more palatable. Besides allowing the Little Rock city board a change to a more representative mayor-city council type of government, Johnson’s proposal would establish a larger 12-member city council instead of the current 10-member board of directors.

If approved, Little Rock voters would elect two members each from six city wards. Under Little Rock’s current county/city manager form of government, the city’s 10-member board is made up of three at-large members and seven elected from local wards, or districts.

Before 2007, Little Rock operated under a city manager form of government when voters elected to convert the city to a strong-mayor form of government, making the mayor’s position a full-time position under former Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola.

Contacted by Talk Business & Politics, Scott said through his spokeswoman Stephanie Jackson that he would not comment on the legislature’s decision to back SB 179, although he pledged during his 2018 campaign to seek such a change.

“Mayor Scott has maintained that he wouldn’t be making public comments about the bill other than as shared during the legislative session: ‘we did not encourage the origination of the bill which has now become law,’“ said Jackson.

Two weeks ago, it was thought that SB 179 had died after it was overwhelmingly approved by the House in a 86-0 vote. At the time, Hendren and House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, officially adjourned the session after the House and Senate endorsed each other’s twin bills to fund the governor’s $5.75 billion budget and rainy-day fund for the upcoming biennium, which begins July 1.

At the time, all 100 representatives and 35 senators were told to re-convene again in Little Rock on April 24 to consider any clean-up legislation, gubernatorial vetoes and other matters before leaving the State Capitol until the next fiscal session in early 2020.

After SB 179 was approved today, Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, officially adjourned the 2019 regular session, thanking his fellow senators for their hard work that Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently called the “greatest of all time.”

“As we get ready to sine die and officially adjourn here, thank you all for a tremendous session and outstanding work,” said Hendren. “We really worked through some difficult issues and I think the State is well served by everyone’s efforts.”