Blacks, Whites Pin Hopes on ‘New’ Arkansas City
Beaten down by poverty and tired of racial tension taking them nowhere, a hopeful band of Black and White residents in Arkansas’ historic river town of Helena and sister city of West Helena have summoned up the will to sweep away the past and start anew in 2006.
It’s been decades since Helena’s river port, small labor-intensive farms, and West Helena businesses have pumped life into the region. Interstates, mechanization and the promise of better lives elsewhere changed all that.
It’s been years since the governing bodies have functioned effectively. Not solely because of race but usually with that element as a factor, public services have suffered.
Four aldermen in West Helena boycotted meetings for 22 months before a judge ordered them back so the city could pass a budget and a property tax ordinance. Five members of the Phillips County Quorum Court, the county’s legislative body based in Helena, refused to set a tax election and went to jail for contempt of court before the election date was set and voters approved the tax.
At a meeting, a justice of the peace on the quorum court asked where all the surplus money from 1997 had gone. “Lawsuits,” the county treasurer piped up.
Even after residents in both cities approved the merger March 1, a judge stepped in and ordered council members in West Helena to start attending meetings and adopt a five-ward map for an election for the new city’s council members. The judge called unacceptable their proposal to have four wards because it could mean fewer people and fewer arguments.
“A selection based on how many council members will be arguing and fighting is illogical, irresponsible, arbitrary and capricious,” Circuit Judge Ben Story wrote in his order last summer.
Since the March election, a transition team appointed by the two mayors began studying how to best set up the new municipality. Headed by veteran Helena City Engineer Jim Frazier, the group met weekly and pored over city codes, municipal finances, and the personnel pool.
Helena native B. Alan Sugg, president of the University of Arkansas System at Little Rock, took an interest and recruited former university chancellor Charles Hathaway to meet regularly with the team. The work yielded 25 recommendations for the fledgling Helena-West Helena City Council.
Frazier said that, when the team met with council members for the first time after a runoff election decided that lawyer James Valley would be the city’s first mayor, everyone seemed energized.
“The meeting lasted over three hours and no one left,” he said.
The 37-year-old Valley, who represented black government officials in past legal disputes, said his approach as mayor will be non-adversarial. His past involvement was guided by his professional obligations, he said, although as a lifelong resident he’s seen groups, both White and Black, make power grabs.
“We ought to agree that the past is bad, but there’s no need for us to keep that tethered around our ankles,” Valley said. The merger of the two towns is “our last opportunity to kind of rebuild from the ground up.”
— Associated Press
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