News Director for East Arkansas Broadcasters in Stuttgart, Eric Mahfouz, moderated the Mayoral Candidate Forum at the Stuttgart Junior High School Library Tuesday evening. The Forum was not open to the public but was live streamed on 97.3 KDEW, Stuttgart Daily Leader’s Facebook page and in a delayed stream on In the Loop’s Facebook page. Each candidate was asked the same four questions and given two minutes to respond. Following those questions, candidates were given a fishbowl question from 12 questions submitted by the community and chosen by an independent party prior to the event. All the questions were submitted by the community, the first four were the top questions asked, according to Bethany Hildebrand, CEO and Executive Vice President of the Chamber. The event was sponsored by the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce and the Stuttgart Daily Leader. Logan Molock of the Chamber was timekeeper.
Prior to the event numbers were drawn to see in what order candidates would be asked questions.
First, each candidate gave a two-minute opening statement. Hobbs went first saying, “I was born and raised here in Stuttgart, graduated from Holman, attended Jackson State University and received a bachelor’s and then Master’s in Business Administration. I served in the Army, then worked for the Federal Government for 23 years in budget and finance. That is what I have to offer to the City of Stuttgart. To be the next Mayor of Stuttgart you need to have knowledge of budgeting, accounting, procurement, and contracts. Then you must be able to write what you need as far as the contract Is concerned, without bringing outside people in to do it for you.
We have people here that work for the City of Stuttgart that can do the street repairs, we have the equipment to do it. We do not need to contract it out. We can get our employees trained by the Highway Department at no cost. After they are trained, they can come back and train other employees to be able to do a better job.
Norma Strabala spoke next. “I was born and raised here, graduated from SHS in 1979, have two sisters, Cindy Aycock, Terri Payne. I am the daughter of Jerry and Carmelina King. My husband of forty years is Mike Strabala. We have a son, Kyle, who works at Producer’s, our daughter in law Sarah Strabala is a teacher right here at SJHS. Kyle and Sarah have given us two granddaughters, Sophia, and Emma. They are the reason I am running for Mayor. I am full of Ricebird Pride, I love this city, it has given me so much and I want to give back. I want my grandbabies to have the same Stuttgart Pride that I have. To do that we have got to work together as a community to make our community what we used to be. With your help, we can make my vision and your vision, a reality. That is why I am asking for your vote.
Teddy Holt was next. “I am Teddy Holt, I was born 14 miles East of here, graduated from SHS in 1975. Worked for my Dad after high school, then went to work for Entergy for 19 years. I started my own business 20 years ago. I have two sons, Tori and Derrel and four grandchildren. I want the city to progress and prosper. I have lived here for 40 plus years. I want the families and industries to thrive and perpetuate the legacy of our great city. After much prayer, I decided to make my candidacy for Mayor. I have been on the City Council for almost ten years. I have gained a wealth of knowledge, have a good working relationship with the department heads. I understand the challenges faced daily and based on those relationships; I think I am the perfect person for the job at this time.
Wade Hobbs was first up for question number one:
The streets of Stuttgart are currently in disrepair. What are your plans to fix the streets and how would you pay for it?
Hobbs response, “I would go see the funding we have in the budget. After I reviewed that I would take that money to pay out for the repairs. I would start with the worst streets. After we move from the worst streets, I would look at the bigger picture. What I mean by that is if we have enough money, right now we do not have it. From what I saw in the budget we had about $60,000, let me rephrase that, we had $60,000 now we have about $40,000. We just spent $19,500 repaving a street. We had an outside contractor to repair it. We have the trucks; the people and we can send them to get training. Not only that, grants. I do not think anyone who works at the city has applied for grants. We have overlooked that resource for many, many years. They are there, we just must find them. We must improve Stuttgart, that is what we are all here to do. We are here for the betterment of Stuttgart.
Strabala’s response, “Before I can start fixing the streets, we need to work on the drainage issues. As you know, we have a lot of drainage problems here in the city. Right now, we are working on getting ditches cleared out, we are in phase one of the four phase program. We can not fix the streets until the drains are fixed. Standing water is not good for streets. My main concern is getting the ditches cleaned out and fixed. While that is going on, I will be looking at grants and forgiveness money. We used to get monies in the past, but for some reason, we got away from that. We need to be looking more into it. Thankfully, Stuttgart Unlimited is helping us out with their new software. I do not really think we need the equipment we are talking about purchasing. I think we need to be looking at other options. I know the State is looking at that too. The company that paved 22nd street was an independent contractor. I do not have all the answers, so I will be counting on others who have the knowledge. We will be relying on several different individuals, so yes, we need to do that. Before we do that, it will cost us half a million dollars to pave Main Street. We have 80 miles of roads to repave. But before we can do that, we must get the drainage issues fixed.
Holt’s response, “The drainage is the major issue in the city right now. We must fix that before we can start on the streets. First, we need to identify the worst streets, then look at the budget. A lot of the street issues that are bad, are the result of the infrastructure we have been doing. After talking with Tommy Lawson, water department, there are some areas we can collaborate with the water department to fix. The water department has budget money to help with funding of the street repairs.
David Leech had brought up a one cent sales tax, but I am not for that, there are grants for streets.
The second question was, “What do you see as the biggest challenge in our community? What are your plans to work on this challenge?”
Strabala’s response, “Communication and transparency and being good stewards of the taxpayer’s money.” Strabala also suggested to help with the first two items to use the second City Council meeting to bring department heads in and bring issues to them. She also said, “Before we spend money, we want to be sure it is to be used wisely.”
Holt said, “The City needs to be more unified, lay differences aside, which is the biggest challenge in this environment. We need to better manage monies. The City does not have a set revenue, which can make it more difficult. We need to cut fat out of the budget so we can be better stewards over money.”
Hobbs response, “Police and Community come together and understand each other. The citizens need to be able to talk to the Police Department. If we are not working together, we are defeating the purpose. Citizens need to understand the role of the police. They are there to protect and serve. Not only do Black Lives Matter but All lives matter. If we can do this it will be a way to move forward. Don’t be afraid to report crime.”
What do you see as the positive things in our community?
Holt’s response, “Over this campaign trail I have found some common denominators. Everyone wants the best for Stuttgart. The love is the most positive thing I have seen. From a business standpoint, I can say that Stuttgart is a regional hub for jobs. Unfortunately, 65 percent of the workforce is traveling in. We need better and more affordable housing.”
Hobbs said, “Most positive is our parks, for our kids. We have a lot for youth to do, softball, baseball, the pool. Arts and Crafts are a plus to Stuttgart and entertainment. If a family moves in, they want to know what they have for the children to do. I’m glad we have our parks.”
Strabala said, “Look at what’s going on. The Solar Facility, High speed internet, we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, downtown, the mills and the duck calling festival. A lot is going on in our town. I challenge you to look at surrounding cities and at their downtown. Our Chamber is steadily working for businesses. We need to modernize our city while keeping our history.”
The last question for all candidates was, “This election is only for a 20-month term. What is your plan for Stuttgart in this limited time frame?”
Hobbs response, “My plan is here again, safety and the elderly. I would like to see more training of our police officers. We can a=not afford to have killings. We need to be sure our officers have current training. I want to move Stuttgart forward. I don’t have a learning process, I have experience.”
Strabala said, “I will do a lot of ride-alongs with employees and department heads, listen to the citizens, I encourage citizens to come to city council meetings. They are held the first and third Tuesday of the month at 5:30 p.m. The Mayor is not an “I” job; it has to be a “We” job. As far as knowledge, I have the knowledge. I know to write grants, state, federal and local. I have been on several state, federal and local boards. My record speaks for itself. I am going to be looking at the budget and how we can spend our money wisely. Feel free to contact me at 870-659- 3809 to give me your opinion. My door will always be open.”
Holt’s response, “The PD is one main department to stabilize, we need to have entry level pay with a top-out. We need a personnel contract and stop being a training ground. A big issue is the PD budget. We need a public relations officer to help the public be aware of what is happening. We need to work on the streets and the drain issues.”
After the top four questions were answered, Hildebrand had each candidate pick a question from a fishbowl to answer.
What do you plan to do about properties within the city with tall grass, trash or otherwise unkempt?
Hobbs response, “I have a problem with that. You can see all this around the city- one of our major problems is those who do not live here and do not care about their property. Need to hold them accountable to keep their property up. A time-table about how long before we tear down property has to be done for those on outside and inside.”
Let us look at the first 90 days after you take office…what are the top three things you plan to accomplish in that time?
Strabala’s response, “Getting departmental heads under control, working with them and the employees making sure we are staying within the budget. Being more transparent, encouraging the community to let me know what they expect from me. I will need the community to buy into my vision so we can make it a reality.”
What do you see as the biggest need for the youth of Stuttgart, and how would you address it?
Holt responded, “The biggest need is some type of organized facility like a boys or girls club, but we must be able to sustain it. We need to encourage youth to participate in our current programs. Here we have an issue with nothing to do.”
What plans do you have to promote and improve Stuttgart’s population?
Hobbs response, “Three things. Lower crime, children have nothing to do. Schools and programs. If you have a family wanting to come into town, they want to know the crime rate, what there is for their children to do and if there is affordable housing.”
What city ordinances, if any, do you feel are not being properly enforced?
Strabala’s response, “There are a lot of issues and I am not going to criticize code enforcement. I would like to be more involved with the code enforcement officers. A lot of things are involved in code enforcement, the legalities, fines, and enforcement. If we are more transparent, have the COE available to answer questions as to why and what steps are made. We need to let citizens call in and they need to step up and call in.”
What can be done to engage the community to make our schools and streets safer?
Holt’s response, “We need to come together as a community and be unified. He suggested having committees from education, clergy, businesses and individuals to meet and come together to strategize.”
With the declining population in rural delta towns, what is your vision for Stuttgart? Where do you see Stuttgart in five or ten years? What will be your role as mayor in this vision?
Hobbs response, “In five or ten years I’ll be trying to increase the population. I hope we would have boys and girls club which will bring people. Have it in a central area so it is available for everyone. Maybe at 10th and Buerkle by the Senior Citizens center, or around the walking track. I would like to be a part of that.”
What have you done for the community to date, and/or some recent projects you have been involved in?
Strabala’s response, “Personally, I won’t say. As a council we have the airport, the solar plants, fiber optics, Stratton’s solar, Stuttgart Public Schools Solar, another at Producers. We have a lot of projects going on, are on the first phase of the drainage project, unfortunately, we do not always here the positives, just the negatives. I have been very active in this community. I love this town and have been active in it since I was 16 years old. I worked with Teddy at one time trying to get a boys and girls club here.”
The first thing that people see when they come into Stuttgart is the North End of town. What would you do as Mayor to clean up this area to make it more attractive to visitors?
Holt’s response, “Again we have to deal with code enforcement. We have economic deficient indicators on the North end. It is deemed an Opportunity Zone. I would love to recruit young investors to come in and invest into the community. The residential side of it, that is a process, with the legal process it is a slow process. It definitely needs help.”
We have many eyesores in this town. What is your plan for condemned and abandoned properties?
Hobbs response, “What I would like to do is give people time to fix their properties. What can we do to help? It is not enough to just condemn. We should try to work with homeowners. Only let it go so long then condemn and remove. We should try to help the owners in a way that they say Stuttgart helped me with my property.”
Are there specific changes you would like to see in how the city’s budget is allocated?
Strabala’s response, “More money. People do not understand how city monies are spent and received. It is hard to budget when you do not know what the revenue will be. We should cross train departments so when someone is sick the work still gets done. Make wise purchases. How is the money being spent? I will not criticize until I talk to department heads and find out what they need. Thanks to Stuttgart Unlimited for providing us with software where we can go out and look for additional funding.”
Do you have any plans to make Stuttgart a more attractive place to live?
Holt’s response, “I would love to get more involved with the Chamber’s Beautification Committee. Have a city clean up twice a year. We need nice, affordable housing that is attractive to people who want to move in. I agree the North End needs to be worked on.”
Closing statements were then given by each candidate.
Strabala said, “I would love to be your mayor. I want to share my vision with the community. I would like the opportunity to serve the community I love so much. Can you imagine what the vision would be together? I want Stuttgart to be what it has been and even more. I encourage you to go to my Facebook page, my Instagram page, and my YouTube Norma King Strabala for Mayor to see in more detail my vision for Stuttgart. We were limited on time tonight, but details can be found on my social media.”
Holt’s response, “Stuttgart, I hear you. I have worked in the community for 20 years. I have prepared myself. My heart’s desire is to serve as Mayor. I have done a lot of volunteer activities. I have been certified in CDI. I feel I have a vision for Stuttgart to come together. We no longer should use the pronouns they and them. It should be we and us. Pointing fingers only causes problems. I am ready to be the next Mayor of Stuttgart. The heavenly Father is my guide. You can go to my Facebook page as well, Theodore Holt for Mayor.”
Hobbs said, “I am not privileged with some of the information that Norma and Holt have said. But I, too, love this city and want to see it move forward. The drainage issue—it was installed in 1904—that is a problem. We must fix the streets and get them paved. We have five outlets for rain to flow out of Stuttgart. The detention ponds need to be enlarged to hold more water. We need to get with farmers about doing that. I would like to see that happen. It would take time. It would take years to accomplish.”
Mahfouz then thanked the candidates, the Chamber of Commerce and the citizens for submitting questions.
Early voting begins April 6 and the election is scheduled for April 13. All voting will take place at the Arkansas County Courthouse Annex in Stuttgart at 4th and College.