JONESBORO — James Ransburg fell in love with Jonesboro last year just by driving through the city on his way to somewhere else.
Retired after 25 years in the military, the African-American Kansas City, Mo., native was looking for a new hometown when he moved to Jonesboro in July 2019.
“Never knew anyone here,” Ransburg told The Sun.
In the process of establishing a 501 (C)3 Christian charity, Ransburg said he had to go to city offices.
“As I visited city hall more and more, I began to realize I didn’t see anybody of color here,” Ransburg said.
He began asking questions and sought information on the city’s hiring practices. In the process, he sought employment data under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
He shared his concerns with the city council last week.
While white people make up 67.3 percent of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census figures, they make up 92.1 percent of the city’s payroll, he said. Of 604 full-time employees, only 37 Blacks (6.1 percent) worked there, even though Black or African American people make up 19.8 percent of the population. Only 11 Hispanic people (1.8 percent) had full-time city jobs, even though 6.8 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino.
Only 18 percent of the city’s employees were women, even though they make up 51.7 percent of the overall population.
Ransburg said Thursday it’s easy to see how minorities might feel like they’re being excluded, even though they make up one-third of the population and contribute to the area’s tax base.
“It’s a classic example, to me, of taxation without representation,” he said in an interview.
Following Ransburg’s presentation to the council Sept. 1, Police Chief Rick Elliott said many of the minorities who apply don’t follow through with the testing process. Of 177 people in the police department, only eight were Black and two Hispanic.
Dewayne Douglas, the city’s human resources director, confirmed much of the employment numbers Ransburg presented, because he provided them to him.
But he found additional information regarding who applied for jobs in the first six months of this year.
“According to the demographic info, (which is not rounded), 9 percent of the applicants identified as black, 1 percent identified as Hispanic,” Douglas said in an email. “It seems that our workforce demographic is almost perfectly matched with our applicant demographic.”
“It’s probably complacency on everyone’s part,” Ransburg said. “Maybe the (minority) community may think ‘there’s not an opportunity for me’ … and so I think it maybe not be a systemic problem, but it’s an attitude that the city and the community might have.
“But it’s not beneficial to the community. And the reason I say that is I believe that Jonesboro is a progressive city – progressive in the sense that a whole lot of businesses are interested in the city. A lot of people are interested in the city for the same reason that I am. It’s safe, and I was impressed by the fact that it’s a dry county.”
All 122 employees of the Jonesboro Fire Department are white, but since Ransburg gathered his information, Fire Chief Kevin Miller said there are now three women at JFD, after a second female firefighter was hired last month following a retirement.
Applications for firefighter positions are down locally across the board, Miller said Friday. The fire department is different from all other city departments in that a civil service commission administers testing and rating qualifications of applicants. Miller said he is only allowed under state law to choose from the top three candidates identified by the commission.
“It was in the low 20s that even applied through the testing process and we wound up with like 12 that wound up passing the test and the physical agilities part,” Miller said.
The commission administers physical and written tests once a year and those rankings expire after 12 months, he said. With little turnover, Miller admits it can be frustrating for applicants. With no vacancies, he doesn’t know when he will be able to hire anyone new.
The city hired three new firefighters in 2019, thanks to a federal grant that allowed creation of new positions.
With testing scheduled for November, Miller urges anyone to apply through the city’s human resources office.
“That’s the main thing, is getting the word out there to any and all candidates to apply,” Miller said.
Bill Campbell, the city’s communications director, said Mayor Perrin agrees with Ransburg that the city needs to be more proactive in hiring minorities.
“Mayor Perrin is well aware of our shortcoming in diversity, and he wants the city to better reflect the makeup of Jonesboro,” Campbell said Friday. “He met with Arkansas State University leadership, who have done an excellent job of hiring diverse staff at most levels. We have unfortunately not been successful at doing that, and it will require proactive change, because we cannot rely on the outdated philosophy of sitting back and waiting to see who applies.”
Job openings are listed on the city’s website. In addition, the city uses a number of alternative sources for recruiting, said Chief of Staff Mike Downing.
Those include: Indeed, SimplyHired, Trovit, Glassdoor, US Military Pipeline and Handshake Recruiter, which is a network of universities in the Southeastern Region.
Ransburg said one way to do that could be to expand on the police department’s Citizens Police Academy by introducing a cadet program for youth to give them an opportunity to see what policing and firefighting is really about.
“We’ve got to come up with a better solution, we have to,” Ransburg said. “I know business and I know industry and I know that one of the things that they evaluate is community relations. And I think that could be a detriment, a liability, to Jonesboro making the progress that they need to make in this market area.”