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Three seek vacant council seat

JONESBORO — Voters have a choice among three candidates who want to succeed Gene Vance for the Ward 1 seat on the Jonesboro City Council.

Vance is completing his third four-year term and not seeking re-election.

While candidates must live in specific wards, voters citywide will participate in the election.

Emma Agnew, who retired in 2018 from the city’s grants department and is current president of the Craighead County NAACP, said she wants to continue her long record of community service, especially for the poor, working class and underserved.

Brian Emison, chief deposit officer for First Community Bank, said he wants to continue his family’s legacy of public service.

Brandon Hogan, a disabled Army veteran, said he decided to get involved out of concern for his children.

“I look at the world today, and I don’t like what I see, and I don’t like what my children are growing up in and what they’re seeing and learning,” Hogan explained. “And I think the only way to change that is to get involved.”

Hogan lives on Dupwe Drive, a neighborhood street that many motorists use to travel from the downtown area to Interstate 555.

“I have two young kids,” Hogan explained. “When I first moved in, I was kind of afraid for them to play around in the front yard. A ball rolls into the street … the speed limit’s 20, but if someone’s going 55 – which is not uncommon at all – you’re going to have a bad day.”

Hogan thought he had a simple solution to slow traffic.

“And so, I called the city and asked about just putting in a couple of speed bumps or some rumble strips, just something,” Hogan recounted. “And they said, ‘We don’t do that anymore.’” He asked why. “‘Because we were getting too many complaints from people who were driving over them too fast and were damaging their vehicle.’ I just said, ‘Is that not the exact point of a speed bump?”

He can’t recall who he was speaking to or what office, but Hogan said he started thinking about it.

“Who is making those decisions and why?” he wondered.

Wise budgeting is a primary theme of Hogan’s campaign. Hogan said he opposed a half-cent sales tax that had been proposed by Team Jonesboro in 2019 to support public safety and quality of life projects. Now that the world is in a recession due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hogan said it’s even more important to concentrate on wisely spending the revenue the city already has. Looking through the current year’s budget, Hogan said he has questions about some of purchases.

“Like $4,000 walkie-talkies” for the police. While he supports the police, Hogan said the department surely could find less expensive radios.

He also questioned spending $100,000 in public funds for the Downtown Jonesboro Barbecue Festival. While that expenditure is under the discretion of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, not the city council, Hogan said “it’s just an example of a bigger problem of money not being spent where it needs to be.”

Even after her retirement, Agnew said she has remained busy in city affairs and will continue to do so regardless of the outcome of the election.

For her, community and economic development is the top issue, and that doesn’t just mean attracting jobs to the city. Inclusion and affordable housing are key elements of that.

“And having worked in the grants and community development department and having worked with individuals, there’s a great need for housing that’s affordable to everybody,” Agnew said. Affordable housing that costs no more than 30 percent of household income, rent or mortgage, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“If you’re an individual working a minimum wage job of $10 an hour, and many cases, those jobs are only part-time, they’re not full-time, that’s $400 a week, a little over $20,000 a year, before taxes,” Agnew said. “And that’s if you’re working full-time. I think there needs to be some kind of plan or some kind of decision on how we can provide safe, clean and decent affordable housing for every citizen.”

People who are not living in affordable housing are at risk of adding to the homeless burden in the city, which still needs to be addressed, she said.

Emison is a member of the Jonesboro Residential Housing and Health Care Facilities Board and also serves on the Jonesboro SkyCop Committee, an organization designed to raise private funds and recommend locations for the public surveillance cameras.

The facilities board has the potential to help ease the shortage of affordable housing, Emison said.

The board was established in 1978 to provide low-interest financing for first-time homeowners. When the board was created, interest rates were in double digits. The board issued $20 million in bonds to provide 8.6 percent rates for first-time homeowners. The bonds were refinanced in 1992 and were paid off in 2007. All these years later, the board still has more than $430,000 in interest-bearing accounts, but with only limited options for using the money.

In recent meetings, the board has discussed potential ways to use its money by helping fund Jonesboro Land Bank projects

“And maybe being able to move some of those funds around to go out here and purchase additional properties,” Emison said of some of the conversation.

“The big things that I want to focus on, of course, it comes back to public safety, namely the police department and also the fire department,” Emison said. Because his father was an assistant police chief, an uncle had served both as a sheriff and chief of police, a cousin had also served as sheriff and another cousin was a state trooper, law enforcement has a special place in his heart, Emison said.

But he’s also focused on the needs of the fire department.

Jonesboro has a Class 1 rating for fire protection, the best possible, according to the Insurance Services Office.

“If we want to continue to have those insurance ratings out there, we’re going to have to continue putting in these fire stations, and specifically two more of them,” Emison said. “If I’m fortunate enough to be elected, I want to take a hard look at the budgets that we have set aside for public safety.”

He said it will be important to continue to expand both the police and fire service staffing, in addition to improving facilities

“We need amenities and we need things to keep people around and give stuff for people to do on the weekends, but first and foremost we have to make sure that these people are safe whenever they’re going to be going out to enjoy the amenities,” Emison said.

Another issue for Agnew is the need to include more people of more diverse backgrounds, not just racial minorities, but people with different gender identifies.

“There’s no non-discrimination for gender and lifestyles, etc.,” Agnew said of city employment policy. “The city had an opportunity last year, it was presented to the council to include that in the non-discrimination policy. And beyond that, there just needs to be more conversations … there needs to be education – people just need to get to know each other. I think that’s what it is all about is getting to know people and building relationships with people. Until we start talking to each other instead of at each other it’s not going to happen.”

Agnew said the city should provide venues and events for those conversations about lifestyles, discrimination and diversity.

“There should be diversity in ages, there should be diversity in gender, there should be diversity in ethnicity,” she said. “There just should be a wide range of diversity. We’re not just talking about black and white. We should make sure that everyone is included. We should make sure that everyone is invited to the table to have discussions surrounding how to make Jonesboro better.”

All the candidates said they are looking for ways to get more residents involved in city affairs.

“I would like to see Jonesboro not just be a place where people live but a place that is actually their home,” Hogan said, adding that too many people don’t even know their next-door neighbors.

Hogan advocates a mentoring program for the community’s youth, especially for at-risk children.

Emison also advocates bringing students into the government, to show them how it operates and assure them they can have a voice.

In addition to deciding four city council contests, voters will also choose a successor for Harold Perrin, who is not seeking re-election as mayor after 12 years in the office. Andy Shatley, Harold Copenhaver and Tom Elwood are seeking to the position.

The Sun asked Hogan, Emison and Agnew what they were looking for in a mayor.

Agnew said the mayor must be accessible to all types of people.

“I’m looking for someone who is able to think out of the box,” Agnew said. “I’m going to be looking at someone who brings a fresh new perspective to the job. Someone who is able and capable of working with all these groups I talked about. Someone who believes in that, certainly. Involving everybody is what the city needs to do to move forward.”

Hogan wants someone with an open mind.

“Ideally, you want experience, but you also want someone that’s not stuck in dogmatic thinking,” Hogan said. “The way I look at it is if they’re more concerned with their image or the image that they’re giving their political party than with their constituents, that’s not somebody that needs to be in any kind of leadership role.”

For Emison, “It’s somebody that’s going to have the interest of the people of Jonesboro at heart. It’s going to be somebody that it’s not just a job at the end of the day, it’s a passion.”

Early voting for the Nov. 3 general election is scheduled to begin next Tuesday.

JPs learn 17.5% of roads in critical condition

JONESBORO — Members of the Craighead County Quorum Court learned how pavement management is saving taxpayer dollars during Monday night’s meeting.

Darryl Gardner, a representative of Conway-based business FirstStep Pavement Management, was on hand to present how a different type of treatment for severely cracked and damaged county roads can be a cost-saving solution.

“My main mission is to get people away from a worst first mentality,” Gardner said. Being more proactive in maintaining county roads is the ultimate goal, Gardner said, along with being educated on repair options.

“We need to have good treatments, and we need metrics in place to see if we are doing a good job managing our road networks,” he said.

Gardner said the first step in the pavement management process was to check the roads themselves. The company achieved that by driving 222 miles of paved county roads and filming every road. They reviewed the footage and then mapped out what condition the roads were in.

Once the mapping was complete, Gardner said they were able to identify that 17.5 percent of the roads were considered to be in critical condition.

“This tells us we have a lot of projects to choose from,” he said.

Craighead County Judge Marvin Day said that was the equivalent of 40 miles of critical roadways in the county.

Roadway repair is already underway and the county opted to use the rejuvenating mass crack treatment repair and a fog seal, which, according to Day costs the county five times less than a traditional asphalt overlay of the road.

One of those roads that needed repair was Rogers Chapel Road, which leads to Nestle and other industries. Gardner explained the more heavily traveled the road the quicker the disrepair occurs, such as potholes and cracks. The second phase of repairs began Tuesday.

Day said opting to use that treatment was an effort to be efficient with taxpayers’ money. The crack treatment should last a minimum of five to seven years, Gardner said.

The county’s transportation, public safety finance committees also met Monday night.

Eugene Neff, road superintendent, told transportation committee members the mitigation box culverts will be ready this week, and road crews will begin the installation. During the last quorum court meeting, JPs approved adding grant funding to the budget that was allotted to buy new box culverts. Neff said they will begin the project on County Road 320.

The public safety committee also met and approved two resolutions, one to appoint Kathy Buchanan to the Craighead County Nursing Board, and another to appoint Jeremy Holler to the Bono Fire Protection Board.

During the finance committee meeting, Craighead County Treasurer Terry McNatt told committee members the county was sitting strong financially. The balance in the county general fund was at $2,473,700.24 as of Sept. 30.

“There are only a few categories we are short on, but that’s because of COVID,” McNatt said. “We are about $21,000 behind the revenue we had last year.”

McNatt said the county is benefitting from the new online sales tax. So far it has generated $78,000 in revenue for the county since it was implemented.

Museum presents 'Blast into STEM: Space Science Activities'

JONESBORO — As part of the Arkansas Science Festival, Arkansas State University Museum will present “Blast into STEM” from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. during the week of Oct. 20-24.

A variety of hands-on activities will engage visitors in the awe-inspiring field of space science and enable them to connect with current NASA research, said Jill Kary, curator of education.

“Participants will be encouraged to make their own ‘spin-art nebula,’ build and test stomp rockets, explore star formation, consider what it might be like to mine an asteroid, and more,” Kary said.

These endeavors introduce guests to the ongoing research at NASA in the fields of heliophysics, planetary science and astrophysics. All activities are COVID-appropriate and include both demonstrations and hands-on opportunities designed to introduce space science concepts safely.

“In honor of the Arkansas Science Festival, our educational offerings for the week will be space themed,” Kary said. “Our goal is to inspire children and adults to learn more about the limitless frontier of space.”

For more details, contact Jill Kary, jkary@ AState.edu or 870-972-2074. Museum opening hours are 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and it is closed Sundays, Mondays and university holidays.

Virus deaths rise locally, statewide

JONESBORO — More coronavirus deaths in Craighead and surrounding counties were reported Tuesday by the Arkansas Department of Health.

Craighead had 32 new confirmed cases and two deaths, according to the daily report. One death each was also reported in Poinsett, Mississippi and Cross counties.

Statewide, there were 481 new casses, raising the cumulative total since March to 89,351, and 25 deaths raising the statewide toll to 1,463.

One manufacturing facility in Jonesboro had eight active cases as of Monday. The report didn’t identify the company but said the plant has had a total of 57 cases during the pandemic. The other patients have since recovered.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson ruled out rolling back the state’s reopening despite a recent surge in coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths from the illness caused by the virus.

The Republican governor extended for another 60 days the emergency declaration he issued because of COVID-19.

“There’s not really an option to go back on our opening of businesses,” Hutchinson said at his weekly news conference on the outbreak. “We’re way past that in Europe and the United States, here in Arkansas.”

Hutchinson, instead, said the focus needs to be on following the state’s mask mandate and other safety guidelines because of the virus.

Arkansas was among a handful of states that never issued a stay-at-home order because of the virus, but had closed bars, restaurants and other businesses. They have since reopened, but with capacity limits and other safety restrictions.

Hutchinson had previously rejected a White House task force’s recommendation that the state close bars to slow the virus’ spread. The White House Coronavirus Task Force said in its latest weekly report on the state, released Tuesday, that Arkansas last week ranked 11th in the country for new cases per capita, putting it in the “red zone.”

The number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 fell by three Tuesday to 605, a day after the state hit a new high for hospitalizations due to the illness. The task force said an average of 92 percent of hospitals in the state reported new confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients each day last week.

Hutchinson said he’s discussed options with his public health team on further steps the state can take if its hospitalizations continue rising. He didn’t elaborate on them, but said some of them include public messaging about the state’s safety restrictions.

About a quarter of the state’s 9,112 hospital beds and nearly 13 percent of its 1,031 intensive care unit beds are available, according to the state Department of Health. There 251 COVID-19 patients in ICUs around the state.

Northeast Arkansas COVID-19 cases by county through Tuesday:

Craighead – 3,561 confirmed (up 32 from Monday), 139 probable (up 11), 460 active cases; 29 confirmed deaths, 3 probable.

Greene – 1,060 confirmed (up 18), 62 probable (up 4); 1457active; 15 confirmed deaths,

Lawrence – 553 confirmed (up 6), 60 probable (up 6); 116 active; 13 confirmed deaths.

Poinsett – 784 confirmed (up 10), 44 probable (up 5); 113 active; 14 confirmed deaths, 1 probable.

Mississippi – 1,837 confirmed (up 29), 60 probable (up 2); 135 active cases; 44 confirmed deaths, 11 probable.

Jackson – 403 confirmed (unchanged), 145 probable (up 3); 136 active cases; 4 confirmed deaths, 1 probable.

Randolph – 459 confirmed (up 3), 86 probable (up 7); 64 active cases; 18 confirmed deaths, 5 probable.

Cross – 483 confirmed (up 6), 32 probable (up 3); 33 active cases; 17 confirmed deaths, 2 probable.

Clay – 364 confirmed (up 3), 20 probable (unchanged); 45 active cases; 5,472 total tests, 9 confirmed deaths, 2 probable.

3 denied bond in alleged plot to kidnap Michigan governor

GRAND RAPIDS — Members of anti-government paramilitary groups implicated in an alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor over measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus during a fraught election year also discussed abducting Virginia’s governor during a June meeting, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

During a hearing in a Grand Rapids federal court to review the evidence against the five Michigan defendants, Magistrate Judge Sally Berens ordered Kaleb Franks, Daniel Harris and Brandon Caserta to be held without bond until the trial. She said she would rule at a later date on the bond status of the other two Michigan men, Adam Fox and Ty Garbin. A sixth defendant from Delaware, Barry Croft, was ordered Tuesday to be transferred to Michigan to face the charges.

Berens’ ruling came after a day-long hearing in which FBI agent Richard Trask revealed new details about investigators’ use of confidential informants, undercover agents and encrypted communication in the alleged plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, before Election Day.

“They discussed possible targets, taking a sitting governor, specifically issues with the governor of Michigan and Virginia based on the lockdown orders,” Trask said, noting that the roughly 15 people at the June 6 meeting in Dublin, Ohio, were unhappy with the governors’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Trask said Fox, who authorities say was one of the ringleaders and who was the only defendant without a mask at the hearing, said during a post-arrest interview that he considered taking Whitmer from her vacation home out onto Lake Michigan and stranding her there on a disabled boat.

The FBI learned of the June meeting while investigating various anti-government groups, leading to the months-long case in Michigan that relied on confidential sources, undercover agents and clandestine recordings to foil the alleged kidnapping conspiracy, according to the criminal complaint and Trask’s testimony.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the talk of targeting Virginia’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, went beyond the June meeting, and nothing from the criminal complaint or Trask’s testimony indicated that anyone had been charged with plotting against Northam. Trask said members of anti-government groups from “four or five” states attended that meeting, and the complaint noted that Croft and Fox were among those who were there.

During a news conference Tuesday, Northam said he wasn’t going to discuss the alleged plot and stressed that he and his family feel safe with the security the state police provide.

“I’m continuing my work for the commonwealth as I would any other day.”

Earlier Tuesday, Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, issued a statement in which she said the FBI alerted key members of Northam’s security team throughout the course of its investigation, but neither the governor nor members of his staff were informed, as per security protocols for highly-classified information. She said the governor and his family were never believed to be in imminent danger, and that there have been enhanced security measures in place for them for quite a while.

“Here’s the reality: President Trump called upon his supporters to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” in April – just like Michigan. In fact, the President regularly encourages violence against those who disagree with him. The rhetoric coming out of this White House has serious and potentially deadly consequences. It must stop,” Yarmosky said.

Whitmer and others have similarly accused President Donald Trump of emboldening extremists.

Trump urged supporters to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota in a series of tweets in April, encouraging protesters who turned up at state Capitols to oppose restrictions aimed at minimizing the spread of the virus.

Following the arrests last week, the White House said the president has condemned hate, and Trump tweeted: “I do not tolerate ANY extreme violence.”

In the Michigan case, authorities said the men were trying to retaliate against Whitmer due to what they viewed as her “uncontrolled power” during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some defendants conducted coordinated surveillance of the Democratic governor’s vacation home in northern Michigan in August and September, according to a criminal complaint. Authorities said four of the men had planned to meet last week to pay for explosives and exchange tactical gear.

Defense attorneys for several of the men used their opportunity to question Trask about the investigation to suggest that their clients were “big talkers” who didn’t intend to follow through with action.

During investigations of paramilitary-type groups, “you find a lot of people who talk about things, but they’re never a threat to do anything. It’s fairly common in these groups?” Scott Graham, attorney for Franks, asked Trask. “Big talk between crackpots – you’ve seen that, haven’t you? People who talk a lot, brashly, boldly, but are never going to do anything about that talk.”

Graham described Franks as a “follower, not a leader” and argued that he shouldn’t be detained before trial. He said Franks was a drug addict but had turned his life around and said there is “no evidence whatsoever” he would be a flight risk.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler countered that it was a “serious plot” and argued that Franks should not be released. “There’s a serious public safety risk,” he said, not disputing that Franks was more of a follower than the men who allegedly led the plot.

The judge acknowledged that some of the men did not have a leadership role in the alleged plot, but she said their participation in repeated discussions about kidnapping Whitmer and surveillance of the governor’s vacation home convinced her they would be a danger if released before trial.

“It is the plot along the way that is clearly very dangerous,” Berens said. “This is a very, very serious crime.”

During a break, Gary Springstead, an attorney for Garbin, told reporters outside the courthouse that the allegations were “serious.” The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted.

“Anyone who is facing a charge like this would be very concerned,” Springstead said. “Literally your life and liberty are on the line.”

During the brief hearing in Wilmington, Delaware, Croft waived his right to a detention hearing there but reserved his right to one in Michigan.

Whitmer, who was considered as Joe Biden’s running mate and is nearly halfway through a four-year term, has been widely praised for her response to the virus outbreak but also sharply criticized by Republican lawmakers and people in conservative areas of the state. The Capitol has been the site of many rallies, including ones with gun-toting protesters calling for her ouster.

Michigan, and particularly the Detroit area, were particularly hard hit by the virus early on during the pandemic, leading Whitmer to put major restrictions on personal movement and the economy, although many of those limits have been lifted since spring.

Seven others linked to a paramilitary group called the Wolverine Watchmen were charged in state court for allegedly seeking to storm the Michigan Capitol and providing material support for terrorist acts by seeking a “civil war.”

The investigation is ongoing.