BRUMMETT ONLINE: Squabble in the city

Posted: January 24, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

They say you can’t fight City Hall.

In Little Rock, they’re also saying you’d best not try to run against the mayor either.

That’s how it looks, anyway. And perception matters most, certainly in Little Rock.

Don’t forget that city leaders explained approvingly after a summertime gang shooting incident that the local crime wave was not as bad as the one that got made into an HBO documentary in the ’90s.

That surely made the 28 persons lying wounded from a nightclub crossfire feel better.

And city leaders tried to use a public relations ploy to cover late last year for the laughable certain failure of their qualification-lacking initial interest in being the site of Amazon’s massive corporate expansion.

City leaders put a big expensive ad in the Washington Post playing for comic irony. The ad said the city had decided to turn down Amazon because the company was regrettably not the right fit for the less-frenzied quality of life that made Little Rock so attractive to smaller suitors.

Little Rock, it appears, is the Donald Trump of cities, obsessed with how it appears in the media and not as evidently concerned with how it really is.

Speaking, then, of irony: Some national media outlet ought to do a story about the mayor of Little Rock getting the city board of directors of Little Rock to order the city attorney of Little Rock to use the authority of city government to file a lawsuit to try to stop two announced opponents of the mayor’s re-election from raising money to run against him, and to give back what they’ve raised.


Mayor of Little Rock, a hybrid position sharing power and responsibility with a city manager, has suddenly become a subject of greater political interest for ambitious Democrats. That’s because ambitious Democrats can’t much hope to win anything regional or statewide in Arkansas anymore.

Mark Stodola has been mayor for a decade, inertia being incumbency’s best friend. As mayor, Stodola is competently nice, or at least he was until this government legal action against people daring to run against him.

Two well-credentialed politicos — state Rep. Warwick Sabin and former Mike Beebe aide and highway commissioner Frank Scott — announced they would run for mayor in the general election this November. They formed exploratory committees — because a city ordinance precludes their official candidacies until June. And they proceeded to raise money through and for these exploratory committees.

Stodola, presumably running again, didn’t like that. He pointed out that the city ordinance forbidding formal campaigns until June plainly prevented the two men from raising money until then as well.

The two men said oh, phooey, basically. They cited a state law that their lawyers had told them prevailed and which authorized the use of exploratory committees for various offices including municipal ones. They also pointed out that Stodola was flush with carryover funds from his last campaign, also based on state permission superseding a local ordinance.

Stodola said that was different. The city attorney, Tom Carpenter, supporting Stodola’a position, endeavored meticulously to explain that purely technical difference in a court filing last seek.

In that filing, directed by Stodola and the city board over which Stodola presides, Carpenter seeks a declaratory judgment. He and the city want to compel the two candidates to stand down on fundraising and the state Ethics Commission to do its regulatory job in the matter.

The commission had previously said there was no state ethics rule at issue in the Little Rock fuss.

Here, then, is what I make of this issue generally and then of this spat specifically:

First, the city ordinance restricting fundraising is noble in its attempt to shorten the money-grubbing period, particularly for city board members who decide lucrative land-use matters year-round. Absent clumsy self-interest, seeming hypocrisy and the affront of City Hall effectively campaigning for the incumbent mayor, I’d side with Stodola on the basis of a higher morality.

But, second, lawyer Chris Burks, supporting the position of Sabin and Scott, makes a good point that unfettered authority for elected municipal officials to restrict fundraising is an open invitation for incumbents from Piggott to Ashdown to hamstring unfairly those who might run against them. A statewide process set by uniform and superseding state law seems the better way.

Third, someone — a public-minded private citizen, perhaps — might want to file a lawsuit seeking clarification on all of this. It would eliminate questions for the time being and perhaps define the need for state or local legislation.

But, and fourth: For the mayor of Little Rock and the city board to direct the city attorney to use taxpayer resources to take out legally after two persons daring to run against the mayor … well, I’d look again to the Washington Post, but this time not for a full-page ad.

I could see a long article starting below the front-page fold under the headline: “In one Southern town, fighting City Hall turns out to be even harder than two men thought.”

That’s not to say this legal question isn’t fair or substantive. It’s to suggest there are fights to start and fights to avoid discreetly if grudgingly.

And it’s to suggest that Little Rock’s city leaders get hoist by their own Trumpian petard of obsession with perception.

The mayor has leftover campaign money. The two challengers have exploratory campaign money. The legal controversy is complex and uncertain.

So, let’s call it a legal wash and let the Little Rock mayoral contest commence.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.