North Little Rock: Hartwick has handle on Council meeting

North Little Rock Mayor Terry Hartwick

No gavel, no problem.

It was sort of a problem, but newly elected Mayor Terry Hartwick handled the first City Council meeting of 2021 like a pro.

The gavel, Hartwick joked, had been taken by former mayor Joe Smith, so Hartwick was doing his best to keep the meeting going.

Ward 4’s Charlie Hight added to the joke and said Smith was likely using the gavel on the golf course.

The meeting didn’t have the crispness of meetings past as City Clerk Diane Whitbey would offer gentle reminders for what Hartwick needed to do. Whitbey did the same for Smith when he started as mayor in 2013.

Hartwick’s first Council meeting also had the additional hurdle of being done remotely, with the majority attending by Zoom.

A complication that will continue, said City Attorney Amy Fields as meetings will be held remotely going forward but North Little Rock had been approved to have 10 in the chamber, per the guidance from the Arkansas Department of Health.

It means more of the Council will be able to attend in person, if they choose, but Fields said guidance said those there would have to be at least six feet apart, so if more wanted to attend at City Hall, arrangements would have to be made for seating, Fields added.

The first meeting of the year also featured a special call and would grant expanded sick leave benefits to city employees because of Covid-19.

Hartwick’s Chief of Staff Danny Bradley said the city had seen more coronavirus cases among its employees in the last two months, then the previous nine months combined.

“This would allow for additional leave,” Bradley said and added that the federal legislation providing more sick leave had expired on Dec. 31.

Bradley said the city’s fire and police departments had been hardest hit with, “five in the main fire station” and 12 in the police department.

His concern that emergency response could be hampered if the additional leave of 80 hours wasn’t approved.

The Council voted 8-0 to approve, even though it appeared Ward 2’s Maurice Taylor thought long and hard about voting no. The pause was so long, some thought Taylor’s Zoom connection had frozen.

In the most notable new business, an ordinance reclassifying property at North Hills Boulevard was approved, 8-0. The property will be developed under a Greenbelt zoning classification and would be used for storage units. The other option was a large apartment complex. Neither were ideal, said Ward 1’s Debi Ross.

“The residents don't want either one,” she said. “Storage is the one the majority prefers over the apartments.”

And storage it shall be.

The reappointments of Chris Dunkum to the North Little Rock Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, Charlie Hight to the North Little Rock Advertising & Promotion Commission and Charles R. Hart to the North Little Rock Historic District Commission were all approved on the consent agenda.