Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and his spokeswoman, Stephanie Jackson, sat down for an hourlong interview Aug. 30 at City Hall. The following is a transcript of that conversation that's been lightly edited.
How are things going after eight months, and are you getting your message out to the people of Little Rock?
Things are going well. This has been a dream of mine, to serve in this role. I’ve had a passion as somebody born and raised in southwest Little Rock to lead this city, and it’s an awesome opportunity. It’s also one of those occasions when you’re like the dog who catches the car and grabs onto the bumper. You have to be careful not to get dragged along.
You’ve had some time now under your belt…
Two hundred forty days. I count them.
I’ve got an overarching theme in that I’m a bit impatient. We had to tackle a previous administration’s budget and cut it; and make the tough decisions and take those hits along the way, but that’s leadership. We’ve recruited 935 new jobs to our city in those 240 days. Last year on the campaign trail our city received a lot of negative publicity nationally as it pertains to our use of no-knock warrants [in police anti-drug raids], so we implemented a new policy and received positive national attention for that.
You have a new police chief.
I really enjoy having our new police chief, Keith Humphrey, and we had a stellar group of applicants. Again, we changed the format to make certain that our communities were engaged in that process, and having all town hall meetings and interviews in front of the community, getting that type of feedback. The community really weighed in on who they thought would be the best person. I made my decision, but I paid attention to the reactions of the people, the things they asked and how the applicants responded. We had to find a leader who was not only tried and tested as a police chief, but understanding of cultural competency and the need for de-escalation tactics and understanding of implicit biases and what we need to do from a fiscal standpoint. We needed somebody who knew what true community policing was, so we selected the best person that I felt not only would respond to our citizenry but also would complement me in areas I need some help in.
So I think we made the best decision in Chief Keith Humphrey.
Moving away from the no-knock warrants was a campaign promise made and kept; another campaign promise made and kept was the institution of a citizens’ police review board, another way of strengthening the trust of the community. We’re starting to see some national attention for that, and you’re starting to see other cities in the state of Arkansas following suit. We’re excited about that.
Another campaign promise made and kept was our Frankly Summer Reading Series, challenging readers from the first to third grade to understand the science of reading. That started this summer. It’s another way we’re focused on improvement, and during Education Month we’re going to announce a stronger desire to intensify the summer reading series, but really for the city to focus on birth through age 5 education initiatives. We need to get that right because many children are starting school behind. If we can change that, and make sure every child has a great first start, by the time they get to the school district, the difference is going to be transformational. It’s not something that’s sexy, but it’ll be transformational in the long-term, and we need that long-term perspective and strategy.
How about efforts to diversify the police force through recruiting more minority applicants?
That was going on during the previous administration, so I want to give kudos to former Police Chief Kenton Buckner as well as Assistant Chiefs of Police Wayne Bewley, Alice Fulk and Hayward Finks, who had been working on that. They recently celebrated a recruitment model, I believe it was with Natalie Ghidotti. It was really a good job, and I’d say our issues — we clearly want to make sure we have a more representative and reflective police department — but our issue really is having true community policing and making sure our police officers not only understand our community, reflect our community, and also make certain that they’re IN the community.
We mean outside their vehicles, really building relationships and trust with the communities they’re policing and protecting and serving.
Have you reflected on the aftermath of the police shooting of Brandon Blackshire and the uproar over the firing of the police officer who killed him, Charles Starks, who has appealed his dismissal? The controversy came very early in your administration, right?
Fifty-third day in office. We did not have the pleasure of a honeymoon. We campaigned on unity and change, and I didn’t walk into office having to deal with an officer-involved shooting on our 53rd day. I didn’t come into office knowing we’d have to cut the budget by $5 million and reduce our workforce by 44 employees, 31 of which were actually field employees.
But we signed up to serve and to lead, and you have to make tough decisions. My grandfather taught me long ago that the only thing worse than a bad decision is no decision. I’d be less than honest if I said there’s no tension. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that there is some morale that has been reduced through this time, but it’s my goal to make sure the Little Rock Police Department understands, even through decisions that some may not like, that I respect them, honor them, admire them and love them. I’m grateful that they wake up every day and put their lives on the line to protect not only me, but the entire city.
Are we going to have issues sometimes? Yes. I was elected by the people of Little Rock and the people wanted to see change and a greater focus on trust and relationships in the department. Sometimes when you’re instituting change, it gets a little rocky.
When the cost of your police protection detail became an issue, did you feel that the situation was misunderstood?
There are some things I can’t share and some things I can. But there clearly have been threats and concerns with security, really starting from the time I was elected. It’s not any secret that there were racial undertones in the race and things that led up to it. Just look at social media if you need any evidence on that point. But that’s life. Anybody who’s a public official is going to experience threats, but being the city’s elected leader, its public-facing leader, you always have to have safety and security protocols, and that’s what Chief Humphrey and before him Interim Chief Wayne Bewley both recommended. It’s not something that I undertook lightly, because I understood the political ramifications of something that was being discussed from day one that I entered office and quite frankly I pushed it off. You can talk to Stephanie, other folks around, it was pushed for quite some time. People knew what was going on, and we finally bit the bullet and took those recommendations.
But yes, it was misunderstood because it has never been done before. The role we have decided to accept based on the law in 2007 that made the mayor a full-time chief executive officer, you take on concerns because you’re making decisions crucial to the people. We’re in the top 125 cities in the United States and I think many people forget that. This is normal, having security precautions in place for the elected leader. You go to Columbia, South Carolina, where there’s 130,000 or 140,000 people, it’s not unusual for a chief elected officer to have a security detail.
How about the idea of being a black mayor in a time of racial unease and sometimes open bigotry across the country?
Race did come up in the historical relevance of being Little Rock’s first black elected mayor, but I’m always quick to share that I’m a mayor of Little Rock who happens to be black. I don’t use the term “black mayor,” even though obviously I am. But I’m mayor of this entire city. The foundation of my campaign and my goal is to truly unify this city and move us from being disconnected, whether it be in southwest Little Rock or East End, Midtown, Hillcrest, Heights, west Little Rock. We have to come together as a city. There has to be intentionality on diversity and inclusion.
When you look at cities like Atlanta, Chattanooga, Memphis, New Orleans, Dallas, do they have racial issues? Yes, but it’s not the headline, because there’s a diversity in their marketplace.
Two things that have always held Little Rock back from its potential is educational achievement and diversity in the marketplace. At the point where we no longer talk about the first black or brown this, or the first woman that, we’ll be laser-beam on our potential on growth, jobs and economic development.
So do I pay attention to it? Yes, it’s my lived experience. I go home every day to southwest Little Rock and see the disparities between southwest Little Rock and Hillcrest in regard to infrastructure. If you truly want to unify and grow the city you have to applaud the growth north of I-630 because that’s the economic output. Most of our tax base is north of 630. But the majority of our citizens live south of 630. Until we improve the economic viability of that area, and it starts with foundational infrastructure, we’ll never reach our true potential. It’s not an either-or, it’s a both-and situation, but making certain that we start paying attention to those areas.
I’m someone who woke up every morning in southwest Little Rock but drove to Ranch Drive to work at First Security Bank. I understand the economy, but I also understand the lived experience of people. The question is, how do you bring everybody to the middle?
How does Stephanie Jackson help get your message out? You’re known as a good communicator and even won an award from the PRSA this year. Is the message you want getting out to the people?
The message of unity and change is coming out. The more unified we are, the more change we can accomplish. It creates positive disruption, which brings value, and when you have value we’re moving forward. I’m excited to have Stephanie as my spokesperson and director of communications. She was the chief voice of the campaign and now the voice of city hall. She’s helped to take a lot of things off my plate, and she’s always thinking long-term. Her strategic planning skills would rival anyone, and I think she’s been a hidden gem in the communications industry for too long. And she didn’t pay me to say any of these things about her.
She’s getting people to pay attention. The month of August has been our economic development month, and September will be our education month. In July we focused a lot on health care. We’re really trying to target the message.
You talk to our Muslim community. Here you have the associate pastor of a Baptist church, but here I am worshiping during Ramadan and doing iftar with our Muslim community. It matters, because they haven’t had a mayor come and worship with them.
You have to be intentional about going to places. When you do, you’re building relationships, building trust, and when you do that, the sky’s the limit.
What we’re trying to do in Little Rock is re-establish our swagger, be a catalyst for the New South. We want to become a more tech and and innovation-centric place. I tweeted about this the other day. I’ve been a big fan of Tristan Walker of Bevel. He’s been on the Silicon Valley scene, but he’s moving to Atlanta. The reason he’s moving is because of the Tech Innovation Center that they’re building. One of the main reasons he’s moving to Atlanta is because of low cost.
We can really take a stand in tech and innovation and by leveraging our asset of parks and trails. People come from all over the world just to enjoy Two Rivers Park, the Big Dam Bridge, Pinnacle Mountain, just how well laid out our parks and trails are, and how interconnected, and we need to communicate that.
Stephanie is a part-time employee. She does a lot more work than part-time, but we have only one communications person full time in the city of Little Rock, the capital city. Other cities may have 15 or 20 people. We’ve got to tell our story. There’s no reason we have to be a “hidden gem” in Outside magazine. There are a lot of great things going on in our city. We just have to tell our story.
Will this require a budgetary commitment?
It has to. Your budget is a reflection of your priorities. I want to see a time when on college football Saturday Little Rock has an advertisement that says come visit us. Share all our great things. We have to have greater confidence in ourselves. I think we want to be conservative with numbers, but it has to be something between $250,000 and $500,000. Now that’s probably small, but we’ve got to start somewhere. We really don’t have a budget now for communications outside the salaries of the people who are doing it.
Most of the communications that come out of City Hall are by tweet and press release. But there’s a difference. City Hall didn’t have that characteristic previously. We’re wanting people to see what we’re doing.
Stephanie Jackson: The mayor has been very intentional about making sure that whatever we do, we’re accountable, clear and transparent. All our tactics and strategies come from the forefront of what we do, because we know that we have to be accountable to the people. You can do that in a way that’s interesting and engaging, and wants to bring people in. So starting in September, residents of Little Rock are going to start seeing some new things from the mayor in the form of video updates. We’re launching his newsletter, to be delivered electronically. So we’re doing more.
Frank Scott Jr.: The newsletter is going to be more in the format of a business prospectus or executive summary, not the traditional newsletter that you’ve seen politicians do. It’s more to the point, boom boom boom, not a lot of fluff.
Jackson: I think it’s going to be something that helps people really get a more complete sense of all the things that are going on. The mayor, as I’ve said before, is excellent at Tweeting, Facebooking, Instagram, LinkedIn.
Scott: Sending smoke signals. [Laughter]
Jackson: You’ve got a younger group of people who get their news mainly from YouTube and social media influencers. We home in on speaking to those people, and help them have a role in what’s happening in their city.
Scott: I’m heading into a meeting on the Mayors Institute on City Design, pivotal as we start to think about what we’re going to do with Hindman and War Memorial parks from a design standpoint.
But more important, our city has never had a comprehensive urban plan, so we’ve never really created a vision for our city. We’ve started an infrastructure study, and hopefully we’ll be done by the end of this year. We did an RFQ, and the winner of the RFQ was Garver engineers. They’ve been working since about February.
Being a former highway commissioner, I’ve seen work that was done by Crafton Tull in the city of Rogers and it’s very similar to what the Highway Commission did to get to its half-cent sales tax. They surveyed all infrastructural issues in the state, something like $20 billion in issues. Of course we weren’t going to pass a tax for $20 billion, so you have to figure out what are your priorities.
The priorities came out to about $3 billion, and that became about the price tag of the half-cent sales tax that was passed about 10 years ago and is coming up on a possible renewal. When we came into office we knew there were significant infrastructure issues across this entire city, but we also wanted to pay attention to what’s going on south of I-630 and east of I-30 with crumbling infrastructure. A lot of that is historical in how the city annexed into those areas. Many people don’t realize that southwest Little Rock was originally part of the county. University Avenue wasn’t University, it was Hayes Street, and it was actually a gravel road before I was born. We understand those disparities and what we need to do to improve those areas. If you improve it, it creates an economic center for growth. So what we expect to get back from Garver this year is a price tag for all our city needs to do regarding the crumbling infrastructure of city streets, water drainage and like issues. It’ll give us a number, and while I’m sure that number is something we can’t pay for, but it’ll help us detail our true priorities.
It’s all encompassing and comprehensive.
Have you announced this project publicly?
We’re getting the word out now. There are a lot of things we have to look at, and I’m a big supporter of regionalism. I’m about to meet with Mayor [Bart] Castleberry of Conway for lunch. One of the things Little Rock hasn’t done in some time is truly invest in itself. We want to grow Little Rock, from a managed place. I was talking with our planning and zoning director, Jamie Collins, and we could double our size without having a drastic effect on our infrastructure. It’s clear we have to improve crumbling city structures, but we could grow our city from 200,000 to 400,000 people and not take a blink. And remember our city is large. San Francisco is 12 square miles; Little Rock is 124 square miles. We have a lot of room to grow in a very managed way, and we want to grow.
What about the I-30 widening project, which has become a hot-button issue?
I’m definitely recorded as being a supporter of it. I supported it when I was an at-large member of the Highway Commission. I supported it during the campaign and I still support it now. I see it as someone who understands the history. First you have to debunk some of the negative perspectives that this is something similar to the cementation of I-630.
But in this case, as I’ve said, no one is being displaced. This city has never before planned for the city’s future. In the 1950s, because we never had a comprehensive urban plan, the state took over right of way in those areas so there was no place for residents to be there. As a person who was born and raised and still resides south of 630, I sort of take offense when people try to juxtapose the racial tensions and red-lining and cementation of the I-630 history and try to compare it to the I-30 crossing. I want to make sure that’s debunked right now.
We have to understand that I-30 is a regional corridor. It’s not a Little Rock corridor. 125,000 people travel I-30 every day. It’s part of the economic model because those people coming here pay sales tax. They may not pay property tax, but they’re traveling in because Little Rock is the economic center. They’re coming here to work; they’re coming here to play. It’s my job to figure out how to get them to come here to live, but in the meantime, we don’t want to stop them from coming.
They are contributing to our tax base. Another quality of Little Rock that’s often overlooked from an economic development perspective is we truly are the central part of the United States. We have river, rail, road and air right here in the center of the state and nation, and we have to take advantage of that.
One argument for the I-30 Crossing project is, first of all, public safety. It is a safety hazard because the current crossing doesn’t have a dedicated emergency lane. It’s also 125,000 people traveling every day on a structurally deficient bridge. From a safety perspective, we have to fix it.
Second, it’s an economic development priority. I-30 is in the top 10 most traveled interstates, which contributes to distributing commerce throughout the states. I-40 is the most traveled interstate, and where do they intersect? Right here.
That’s another reason that Little Rock should have kept FedEx. FedEx would have done a way better job in Little Rock than in Memphis, and I say that as an alumnus of the University of Memphis. We should have kept it here in Little Rock.
Safety, economic development and quality of life. When you look at it, we’re getting rid of those concrete spirals that are in the middle of the RM and downtown area. There are commitments now from the business community and foundations to develop some type of park right there. The state is going to maintain it, but it’s going to take the private sector through a true public-private partnership to create a park right in the middle of our downtown very similar to Millennium Park in Chicago. That’s going to be a quality of life initiative.
You take Dallas’ uptown area. It’s in the middle of an interstate, but you have uptown that’s really thrived around it because you have parks and restaurants and things of that nature. Go to Austin, and their downtown is in the middle of an interstate, but they’ve still figured out ways for public-private partnerships to focus on parks and the quality of life.
Are you concerned that the I-30 construction project could disrupt downtown businesses?
I’m definitely concerned about the potential for business disruption during construction, I think one of the things we’ll see from the highway contractor is a plan for making certain that it’s communicated clearly up front when certain pieces of the project are going to start and stop, and the highway commission and those contractors will work with downtown companies to advise, say, having employees come to work at 7:30 rather than 8, and have a coordinated plan.
We have to love our city and beat our chests about it. That’s what I mean by swagger. Too many times we’ve been silent about what all we have to offer.