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Jonesboro voters face important choices on Tuesday

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Less than a week before the election, the candidates for Jonesboro City Council are aggressively divided, but present a unified list of top priorities and similar visions for the county seat.

Though the loyalities of the people campaigning for the four council seats are split between the two mayoral candidates, they and the would-be mayors agree on the top challenges facing Jonesboro:

· Economically improving the city, bringing in new businesses, especially restaurants and tourist-friendly shops.

· Improving the city's housing market, so there are fewer vacant houses, more home owners and fewer rental homes.

· Keeping the crime rate low and neighborhoods clean.

· Moving forward with the proposed Streetscape project, which would beautify Main Street and make downtown more friendly to pedestrians.

· Ending the divisiveness currently seen in city government, getting the council to work together, and with the mayor.

The candidates supporting the city's current mayor, Joy Day, in her pursuit of a fourth term, say the way to reach those goals is through progressive measures, and through an educated response to the city's current challenges.

"I would like to see the city progressively moving in a more upward direction," said Pat Sebo, a human resources specialist for the county school system, who is running for one of the four open council seats.

"I'd like to see us preserving the history of Jonesboro, along with bringing in some new developments," Sebo said. "I've seen the city change for good and for bad, and I just think we've got a lot of potential."

Daniel Hudson, a council candidate who was the vice president of the Downtown Development Association until it was abolished by members of the council, echoed Sebo's desire to balance preservation and progress.

"I'd like to see Jonesboro look like it did when [Civil War General William T.] Sherman got here, but also be a thoroughly 21st century city," Hudson said. "I see a lot of potential, in Jonesboro, and I will be the last person to give up on Jonesboro."

Day said the major change needed is an openness to new ideas. She said she supports the candidacies of Hudson, Sebo, Donya Sator and incumbent, Linda Wenz, because they will work to "move forward positively."

"These are forward-thinking people, who are ready to roll their sleeves up and get to work for the people," she said.

Candidates, who support Luther Maddox's campaign for mayor, give the same list of top concerns, but say those goals must be achieved efficiently and responsibly, with a close eye on costs. "I'm hoping Jonesboro will become the city you dream about in a movie, where you see the home town city square," said Larry Boak, a retired insurance investigator who is seeking a council seat.

"I think we're on the right track with Streetscape. I do not oppose that," he said. "But I want it to be a financially stable city. I don't want anything to be done to get rid of the [$3.7 million budgetary] reserve, or lessen the reserve to the point that, if there was a major disaster, we wouldn't be able to take care of the citizens."

Incumbent, Roget Grider -- who said that he, Maddox, Boak and Billy Powell are "pretty much all on the same page" -- said the number of vacant houses in Jonesboro raises serious concerns about the city's tax base. Economic improvement, stricter code enforcement and downtown redevelopment are needed to ensure the city's long-term financial situation.

Maddox lists the city's improved financial situation and the accumulated financial reserve as the proudest accomplishments of his time on the council. He was able, he said, to cut city taxes to zero, this year, "by making good fiscally responsible choices and adhering to the budget."

Maddox wants to see the city revitalized, but said the first priority is always to make sure the money is in place for the proposed projects.

"I'd quit talking about Streetscape and get started on it," said Maddox, a retired engineer for Ford Motor Company. "We've been talking about it since 2003 and we haven't moved a shovel-full of dirt ... The biggest challenge is to do all of these things without putting the city in debt."

Day said that her biggest accomplishment, after 12 years as mayor, is the construction of the city parks, and "those things that directly serve the citizens." The parks were built with grant money and inmate labor, the mayor pointed out, and didn't cost the taxpayers anything.

Both mayoral candidates, and council contenders on both sides, cited divisiveness as a top issue. Though they blame different people for the fights, they say council members will have to move forward in 2008, and work together.

Hudson said the new members will have to recognize that they all want the best for the city, and be willing to work together. "We need to come together in the middle and start working completely for the good of the people," he said.

Sebo said there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make peace, and said that, if elected, she would work to "smooth over hurt feelings" and be a peacemaker.

Other candidates, who've spent time on the council, say the only solution to the aggressively divided city government is to get rid of one side or the other, in the election on Tuesday. "I really, really hope that the voters are wise enough to put in people who can work together," said Wenz, a retired school teacher. "The council doesn't get along with the mayor, and they don't allow her to get anything done. For two years, we have not progressed forward."

Maddox and some of his supporters agree that the solution lies in the upcoming election. Billy Powell, a retired gas station owner and council candidate, said he hopes voters agree that "the mayor has outlived her term."

Two candidates, incumbent Bobby Wiggins and Wallace Norrington, weren't mentioned by any of the others as being on either side of the city divide. Neither could be reached for comment for this article.

However Jonesboro residents view the issues, they will get a chance to elect a mayor and fill four of the six council seats on Tuesday.