Economic growth, police and conflict of interest polices were just some of the topics discussed during a forum between North Little Rock Mayoral Candidates Thursday night.
The digital forum, held by the League of Women Voters and the William F. Laman Library, featured all four mayoral candidates: Terry Hartwick, Alice Kunce, Debi Ross and Tracy Steele. Below are the candidates’ abridged answers. You can watch the forum here.
Question one: What do you see as some of the top challenges facing North Little Rock, and how would you address them?
Debi Ross: "The main issue is bringing everybody together in the city. We’re so divided from the federal level down, it’s trickled down to us and we’re feeling that. To bring everyone back together, let’s sit down, let’s talk about it, let’s correct the things that need to be corrected at this time."
Alice Kunce: "I think our biggest issue is infrastructure. Infrastructure has to do with equity, equality and fairness. If we have good streets, and streets that are shared by pedestrians and cyclists and children and cars, if they get us from where we want to go, if they don't flood, if there's not trash everywhere, if we don't have good sewage, those are things that when it comes down to where you're going to buy your house and where you're going to live, those things matter."
Terry Hartwick: "One of the most important things is COVID-19, but other things are safety. People want safety in our city now… right now jobs is something that's very important, always jobs. With being the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce… remember that I took all these jobs in. I was responsible for a lot of it."
Tracy Steele: "I think the number one issue in North Little Rock is bringing our city together… that’s critically important because if you look at the issues we’re dealing with, like education, public safety, economic development, all those issues will improve if we come together. Another critical issue… is the issue of improving race relations in the city of North Little Rock."
Question two: What would your plan be to improve the lives of our city’s most marginalized citizens and neighborhoods?
Tracy Steele: "The marginalized people in North Little Rock are the people who’ve been left out and looked over and forgotten. I think that the issue is going to be an issue of fairness, to be able to look at those communities, and make sure that North Little Rock is not a divided city… what we can do is bring our entire city together, and that’s what I want to do as mayor."
Alice Kunce: "As I've been exploring the city we have areas that say ‘property of North Little Rock, no dumping.’ Well, how can we look at that space and turn it into something that's useful and beautifies the neighborhood and that sort of thing? All neighborhoods deserve to be pretty, they deserve to be free of trash and they deserve to not flood… we've really got to look to see where we were sending our water out of some neighborhoods down into other ones, and let's see how we can fix that so that we're all safe."
Terry Hartwick: "We have way, way too many potholes in our streets. So I’m going to institute… a 711 number. So if you see a pothole in the streets, you can call that and know that within 48 to 78 hours, that pothole’s going to be repaired… there’s trash all over the streets. It doesn’t take brain surgery to sit there and pick up the phone and get these things handled."
Debi Ross: "The city can’t do everything, but we sure can partner with organizations and different churches and groups… picking up trash, yes, that’s definitely something that we need to take care of. But we’ve got so many organizations and volunteer groups that are willing to get out… and working with the landlords, clean up your neighborhoods, that’s how we bring back these neighborhoods."
Question three: What plans do you have for economic growth and development?
Tracy Steele: "We need to look at two things. One: making sure that we go out and recruit small businesses, and make sure it’s easy for those mom and pop businesses to do business in the City of North Little Rock… the other thing we need to do is look at recruiting industry… no longer are your larger companies coming to cities where people don't have the type of racial harmony that we need here in North Little Rock. We need to have a look at what northwest Arkansas has done and even look at more of a regional approach."
Terry Hartwick: "I ran the chamber of commerce and I disagree with what Tracy [Steele] said. I think that I've been involved with economic development when I entertained Ben E. Keith, when we did the Dickey Stephens field, when we’d done Caterpillar… so I'm used to doing that job, I have done that job and I will continue to do that job… there’s always room for improvement, but right now I’d put North Little Rock against Springdale, Bentonville. Evidently he doesn't, but I think we can do it better here just as easy as they do up there."
Debi Ross: "As a small business owner for 35 years I have personally experienced it… I’ve been on the city council and I was the one that approved those funds and helped to bring those businesses, large businesses to North Little Rock. No one can take credit for it, it was a whole team effort on that… but small businesses are what make up our city and that's the ones that we also need to look at. They’re overlooked many times, the legal hoops that they have to jump through, those are things that we need to work on."
Alice Kunce: "When you make a neighborhood look like it's walkable and you increase its walkability score and you improve the sewage and the plumbing… we need to make sure that once we fix those things, that's what draws businesses to the area because they know they don't have to do all those improvements. I also think it's important that we bring in companies that are willing to work with our residents where they are. If you're willing to work with someone who is out on parole, that’s someone who's going to help us bring those people back into society, that's one of our marginalized communities. We also need companies who are willing to pay their taxes. Our tax rate is quite high here, we have one of the highest rates in the nation. But those taxes are also what fund our other programs."
Question four: The North Little Rock residents and the police force appear to have a good relationship currently, what steps should be taken to prevent future potential issues?
Terry Hartwick: "We do have a really really good police force. They’ve got a great reputation with the citizens here. Changes, yes, but only changes to improve things without a doubt. I mean I like ride along programs, I think that’s something we should get back into...I think that’s awfully important that we understand as citizens what the police go through. I think that’s more important than anything. A lot of times we take our police for granted. They just think they’re going to be perfect. Maybe on domestic violence [incidents] we start bringing some kind of social worker with us. Things like that should be looked at without a doubt."
Debi Ross: "Individuals have no idea how much they do behind the scenes. We have the police athletic league. We have fish with a cop. We have shop with a cop. We have so much that they do behind the scenes. Are there things we can do better? Absolutely there are things that we can do better. I’ve got emails from all over the country as far as defunding the police. Our police, I mean, what they work on is amazing. The productivity we get for the price that we pay. Are there some things that we can add and just like Terry [Hartwick] said, in a domestic situation, could we call in a social worker? Usually by the time someone picks up that phone to call the police, it’s beyond a social worker at that time. So there’s a lot of things we need to work on."
Alice Kunce: "As an educator, I’ve had to sit through a lot of trainings that other people think that I need, that I don’t necessarily need and then some of them turned out to be ones that I did need. So I would like to first start talking with our police officers and say ‘Hey what are some of the training that you are interested in doing that we haven’t maybe circled around for. I think we could definitely work on some implicit bias training and some more de-escalating in a mental health situation. I’d also like us to, you know we’ve got women and children first here in central Arkansas when it comes to domestic violence, how can we really support the people that we need to, when it comes to those situations and I think that’s where the police can really help."
Tracy Steele: "We certainly need to support our police officers more. They need more training, but not just the type of superficial training for a few minutes. We have some really serious problems out there. The thing I love about our police force is they ask for more training. They want more in-depth training that includes role-playing. Also, we need to make sure that we’re compensating our police officers appropriately with proper benefits and also pay increases as well. We do have a good police force….but they also want to see more community relations and better race relations. They see it firsthand around the city and they are the first ones to tell me, we do need to bring communities together. When we bring communities together the right way, crimes goes down."
Question five: What experience do you have that qualifies you to run a city as the chief executive and manage a city budget?
Debi Ross: "I’ve got 14 years on the City Council, I know the role of the mayor. The mayor is day-to-day operations. The City Council is the legislative and with that, like I said I’m not always out in the front, but I do know what’s going on. I do keep up with what’s going on in the city. We have calls, I [have] certified several hours, numerous hours of training as far as what the mayor can do and what the mayor can’t do, and it’s huge. Every elected official had that certified training. With that and also my background from working with the schools, in the neighborhood groups. Every month for 14 years I have been in the neighborhood groups in Ward 1 and I know what they want in those neighborhoods. That’s in Ward 1, but I’m ready to get out to all of the neighborhood and see what we can do."
Alice Kunce: "If anybody has ever worked with 11-14 year olds, it’s probably not going to be very many people because they are not the children people want to work with. They have lots of emotions and they are happy and then they’re sad and then they’re angry and their parents tend to follow those same trends. So when it comes to customer service when I started working as a carhop at Sonic as my high school job, up to being a teacher now, I’m really good with being able to talk with people from all different walks of life and different background and I think that’s important. When it comes to day-to-day operations, I am a very, we’ll say Type A personality. I love a good spreadsheet, I love to go line-by-line, I like to highlight things and check things off and really make sure that all of the details are paid attention to without losing track of the big picture."
Tracy Steele: "I have been a state representative and state senator for fourteen years in the legislature. Apart of appropriating over a billion-dollar budget, always served on the budget committee. I’ve also headed agencies with the state, the Department of Youth Services’ budget was about the same as the city as well as I was president of the North Little Rock School Board, which has a budget about the same as the city. I’ve looked at the city budget, I am concerned though with the needs that we have…Because sales taxes came in at a higher level, I have seen that there [has] been a surplus in the budget and there are tremendous needs out there. So I will be really interested in seeing what happened to the surplus, how it was spent."
Terry Hartwick: "I’ve been there before, I’ve done it. I know the budgets. I know what’s out there…When I was mayor we started Mims, that’s something that I take a lot of pride in. I take pride in our One-Heart Park. I take pride in I was one of the first mayors to go green with the hydro plant. I’m going to look at solar power. I think that’s something [that] should be very important. It’s gotten cheaper. I’m going to look at going to electric cars. Those are coming down [to be] a lot less expensive than they used to be. So what gives me the experience, it’s because I’ve got the experience."
Question six: Share with us your ideas of increasing diversity and inclusion in city staff, leadership and community populated boards and commissions.
Alice Kunce: "I think some of that has to do with, having not grown up here, I don’t have tons of family here, which means I don’t have those long term relationships where I might be in a situation where I owe someone something or they owe me something. And so what I’d really like to do is as we transition through the future is to encourage people who have not been involved in the city because they haven’t had a seat at the table to come on in. That also means that we need to make our table bigger. We need to expand some of our commissions a little bit more so we can include those marginalized communities that have not been at the table."
Tracy Steele: "Diversity is critically important. We have never had that with the city of North Little Rock. I think the staff, City Hall needs to look like the city. I think there are some fine people there doing a great job, but I think we do need more diversity. Not only city workers, but on boards and commissions. We need more diversity in our city and to bring our city together. And to include the leadership in our city, religious leaders, business leaders to come together and to help us improve race relations. And through that I think we would get more people interested and becoming part of the city and serving on boards and commissions. Right now it seems like we use the same people that serve on multiple boards and commissions and we don’t give an opportunity for example, our younger people who want to serve, want to get involved and we need to do a much better job of that and I can do that as mayor."
Terry Hartwick: "From when I was mayor the first time, I was the first mayor to appoint two minorities to department heads. I think diversity is one of the most important things we have in our city right now, but it needs to continue. I want to form a diversity committee that looks at all commissions and boards and appointments throughout our city. I think it’s important that we get qualified people, the people who can do the job best…but just to point to someone to have a position to be on a board, they need to be qualified. Our city is so important with where the progress goes from, but yes diversity is important, I’ll continue to look at it, but I’ll continue to recruit diversity with qualified people."
Debi Ross: "One of the things that I’ve wanted to see all these years and not being mayor wasn’t able to do is... we don’t have an online application for the boards and commissions. What you would do is you would send an email to the mayor and then they look through the applications, but it needs to be out there where it’s accessible to everybody to be able to fill out an application and let’s look at that. And that way we’ll get more diversity through our boards and our commissions and as far as our city employees, we want the best employees we can get. And recruiting, if we have to reach out to the Black, the Hispanic, the Asian communities, then we need to do that. It’s the same thing that we do with the fire and police. We reach out to them, trying to recruit those. The police department, they’re going into the colleges, the high schools, trying to get, being a more diverse squad. And so that’s one of the things with the online applications, having it more accessible. We want to get younger people in, but we’ve got to talk their language."
Question seven: Does the city have an adequate conflict of interest policy in place for all elected officials, those serving on boards and commissions and staff?
Tracy Steele: "If they do it’s certainly not working. There’s situations where we need ethics legislation at the city. I’m hearing that all over. We had a situation where somebody on the planning board getting up to promote...their own project and that should not happen. We have situations where people who are in charge, and one of the reasons Debi [Ross], that some of our young people can’t get opportunities with the city is because a lot of people who are in charge of the budget and agencies have their children and their wives and husbands working at the city. And that’s what I’m hearing and I think a lot of that needs to change in North Little Rock. I don’t think we need to have people serving on board and commissions and then going down the other end of the table and promoting their projects. I’m the only one that came out against the big issue in Lakewood and I see that none of the other people running actually came out on that, but I think we definitely need ethics legislation. I was a part of that with the state. We took care of that."
Terry Hartwick: "I think it has. We need to possibly look at it, but as you say Alderman Ross has been there for 13 years and I’m sure it’s been in place and I’m sure she’s had a chance to look at it. Do I think there’s always improvement, I’ve said that before, but right now that conflict of interest policy, we can always address these things. But right now we got really really good employees. Tracy [Steele] brought up the part about Norman Clifton possibly wanting to put a store down there, but you saw the transparency of our city going to work because it didn’t happen. Everybody has a right because they own property to make a small investment in their community…but it showed that the people spoke, the people listen. I was at that planning commission meeting. I was outside talking to the people and you see that the city government did work right, the planning commission made a good decision and now we’re moving on."
Debi Ross: "I think that maybe some people don’t understand the position of the city council. It’s not our position to come out until it gets to the city council but I can assure you that I was there also, and any information that anyone needed it was provided to them. I did get all the information to them so that is pretty much a moot point as far as coming out against something before it even gets to the city council. So we need to know what’s the role of the mayor and what’s the role of the city council. That’s one of the things I think that differentiates me from the other candidates is I do know the role of the two. That’s when you see a lot of cities, you’ll see a lot of bickering back and forth between the mayors and the city councils. And it’s because they don’t know the role of that position."
Alice Kunce: "I think what happened with the Lakewood convenience store over there and our planning commission really highlighted maybe an area of blind spot that our city had. I was involved in the petition for that and I think, when something seems to be rolling along and running really smoothly, it’s easy to forget the people who aren’t on that train at all. And it’s easy to just say 'Well let’s just keep going and it’s fine. We don’t need to turn it around.' But I think if we sat down and we revised our different ethics…What does it mean to be ethical in the 21st century in a time when you can immediately dox somebody on the internet and pull up all of their factual information and you can Google Map their house, right? Ethics are a little bit different now. There’s a lot more transparency which is good, but there’s also an issue of who’s related to who and how long people have been in power in different places."
Question eight: What is the city’s appropriate response to public demonstrations by their citizens?
Terry Hartwick: "Everybody has the right to protest and demonstrate as long as it’s done legally, doesn’t destroy property and doesn’t slow the process down. And so without a doubt, everybody has that right. But again, it has to be done the right way. Protest is something that’s in our constitution, it should not be messed with. I think it should be done, but again it’s the right way and the wrong way to do things and I’m without a doubt knowing it should be handled properly. And I won’t mess with it as long as doesn’t destroy property, doesn’t get out of line and yes, that’s the constitutional right of every individual."
Debi Ross: "Being a child of the 70s I know all about sit-ins during Vietnam and so it is absolutely the right of anyone to protest, demonstrate as long as it doesn’t turn criminal. If you’re going to start burning buildings and graffiti and throwing rocks, those are criminal offenses and those will be dealt with if I’m mayor. There’s no ifs ands or buts about that. But as far as a peaceful protest, absolutely. I’ve lived through that and that was back in the day."
Alice Kunce: "You’ve asked what the response should be, I think the response should be to listen. If people are angry, why are they angry. If people are hurting, why are they hurting. If they’re fearful, why are they fearful. We need to listen and give them a place at the table to voice those grievances so that they can feel involved and actually be involved. Then, we need to address those concerns. What is it? What do they not have in their community that they’re demanding? And you know what, there’s a way to do that quietly and there’s a way to do it loudly. But at the end of the day, you need to listen and then provide assistance."
Tracy Steele: "I certainly want to thank Alice [Kunce], that was going to be my answer. Everybody can say that it’s our right, which is certainly our right. We should not destroy property. There should not be violence. But there’s a reason why people protest and I think if it’s a legitimate concern, then we do need listen. We need to listen to our young people. There’s a tremendous gap between those who are in leadership positions and those who are out there protesting and trying to make a difference. And I think we need to do a better job of listening to our young people and as mayor, I will make sure that I do that."
Question nine: What do you think is the most effective plan to invest money by ward.
Debi Ross: "The equal amount, however we proportion it. And how else would you do that? We do have CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] funds that come in through grants. None of that funding goes to Ward 4, they do not qualify, the income levels are higher there. Those all go to Wards 1, 2 and 3. The equal amount of the recent sales tax, the half a million dollars that we have, each ward has individual needs. You may think that we need more in certain areas, but you also have to understand that they’re taxpayers too and those are their tax dollars and so they deserve their share of that. We do have other funds that can go to other neighborhoods, like I said we have the CDBG, we have the Ward Drainage Funds. The majority of the drainage funds in Ward 1, they do go to the older areas that need more infrastructure. And so it is used that way, so as far as dividing it up, it should be divided equally."
Alice Kunce: "As an educator, a big part of my job is equity and that sort of thing. It’s like 'Do I need a stool to reach something?' No. 'Does someone who is only five feet tall need a stool to reach something?' Maybe they do and we provide accommodations as needed. When we have areas that don’t have the same services that other do, it’s okay to redistribute those funds so that they can have the same type of opportunities and their families can have the same opportunities. But I do think our city council has been really good in the past decade of working together, especially when it comes to streets to say 'Hey, who needs more paving' and that sort of thing. But I think it’s okay if we went back, we listen, what are the needs and made a city-wide priority list rather than just focusing on our separate wards so much."
Tracy Steele: "I disagree with dividing the money up equally. Again, I say I don’t think some of our more affluent places, although they have needs and although they are taxpayers, but I think some of them will be the first to say, 'Let’s take care of our community.' We have people in North Little Rock that are having a tough time. I go back to that story about the gentleman in Dixie that had a boat on his porch. And I asked him what kind of fishing did he do and he said 'I don’t fish, that boat is because it floods and if it floods, I’m going to need to get out of here.' It’s a sad day when we leave our people in a situation where they have to be afraid of a hard rain. So I think we should prioritize our needs and come together and serve this community appropriately."
Terry Hartwick: "I think the division of the money that goes to each ward should be even. Tracy [Steele] was a senator, that flooding’s been going on and I don’t see he did anything at that time to alleviate the problem. It’s more or less a Corps of Engineers problem, but you got to do this at the state level…So long story short, it has to be a team effort from our senators to our governor to the state senators, all the way down that we can relieve these things. And yes I agree that we should get everybody a chance to have the roads and everything paved at every ward, just like Debi [Ross] said."