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City debate: Who runs the city when mayor is absent?

It’s a scenario most people don’t think about: What’s a town to do if the mayor unexpectedly disappears?

That issue became a front and center question Monday night when Mayor Joe Smith brought to the floor of the North Little Rock City Council a proposed ordinance that would establish who would manage the city if the mayor were to be absent.

Smith said he would envision a full-time elected official acting in his place in the event of his absence.

In 1976, North Little Rock had set up a procedure through legislation to select a vice mayor and President Pro Tempore to serve in the mayor’s absence or inability to perform functions of the office.

However, in 2011, the Arkansas General Assembly amended the state law to regulate how President Pro Tempore officials preside over council meetings in the absence of the mayor.

In Section 2 of the proposed ordinance, if the mayor is unable to perform the duties of office or cannot be located, the city clerk or other elected official of the city, designated by the mayor, would be permitted to perform all functions of a mayor during the disability or absence of the mayor.

City Clerk Diane Whitbey the state law was updated after an Arkansas mayor disappeared a few years ago with a companion.

“It was an emergency,” Whitbey said.

Both the council and the mayor seemed on the same page during the early stages of discussing the legislation until Alderman Debi Ross asked Smith who he would designate to take his place in his absence.

“It would be someone who could handle the day-to-day operations of the city,” Smith said, saying he would not favor a part-time elected official.

Smith said he didn’t think Whitbey would be interested in the position so he said he would probably designate City Attorney Jason Carter.

Ross raised an objection when Carter’s name was raised.

“I thought it would be council who would designate someone,” Ross said.

Alderman Linda Robinson a city council member should preside over council meetings if the mayor is absent.

Ross said Carter has enough on his plate, being the city attorney as well as the acting general manager of the North Little Rock Electric Department.

Attorney Matt Fleming, who has been assisting Carter as the city’s attorney as Carter has been busy managing the electric department, said the proposed ordinance complies with the new state law.

Some aldermen suggested that the council should pick a person who would run the city if the mayor was absent. Smith said the new state law does not give a city council that authority in Arkansas.

After some debate, Smith suggested that the ordinance be held until more discussion and consensus could be reached among city officials.

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