Executive Director Mark Hayes says the best way to think about the Arkansas Municipal League is in two parts. The primary function of the organization representing Arkansas cities and towns is that of the average professional association — lobbying at the state and federal level for members, offering professional education and certification and providing general assistance.
“We save taxpayer money by providing advice and programming and assistance on a variety of matters that then allows for those taxpayers dollars at the city level to be used for more police cars or better streets or updated bridges or new park equipment,” Hayes says. “We ensure that cities and towns can serve their citizens and provide the services those citizens want.”
The second function of the Arkansas Municipal League, however, is a bit more unique.
“Lots of municipal leagues around the country have things that are similar, but I’m pretty comfortable in telling you that we are the only one who has everything under one roof and has maintained a level of independence just as the League itself,” Hayes says. “What I’m referring to is our voluntary programs.”
While there are a variety of programs offered, the five major ones offered by the organization are the Municipal Vehicle Program, Municipal Property Program, Municipal Legal Defense Program, Municipal Health Benefit Program and the Municipal League Workers’ Compensation Program.
“What cities decided a long time ago under the umbrella of the League was to join forces, to put their money in one place and rather than self-insuring, they could have the power of the group and put those monies within the confines of the League and have the League manage it [and] pay claims,” Hayes says. “We do that for vehicles, we do it for city property like city halls, police stations and fire stations.”
Although the programs are completely voluntary, each is widely used. Hayes says the workers’ compensation program has 492 members and the legal defense has an excess of 450 members.
The League itself, founded in 1934, is a one-stop shop for cities and towns in Arkansas, Hayes says.
“You can literally get online or walk into this building, and you can figure out what a mayor’s legal responsibilities are, what the clerk-treasurer’s responsibilities are, what the city council’s responsibilities are. You can learn how to run a meeting, you can learn how to pass an ordinance or you can learn the power of putting your monies together with other cities to protect your vehicles.”
The distribution of all of these services and educational materials comes together for the purpose of preserving one vital aspect of city and town government — local control.
The League has launched a local control campaign to highlight each city’s unique qualities — while each city and town needs things like firetrucks and police cars, each municipality has other needs specific to its community.
“Local governments — councils, boards, mayors — need to be free to make decisions that work in their community and are supported by their citizenry and, when legislation is passed that is a one-size-fits-all, it ignores local control,” Hayes says.
Local control from a legal perspective is as simple as allowing a government body that is closest to the people it represents to make local decisions in a way best crafted to its city’s specific needs, he says. Oftentimes, this means fighting against preemption types of laws or dictates and unfunded mandates on municipal government because they will not be beneficial for certain nearby communities.
Hayes cited Jonesboro as an example of a community listening to its residents and having the autonomy to develop programs that lead to projects such as the city’s Miracle League sports complex and housing for homeless veterans.
However, Arkansas has seen legislation, some of it recently, that prevents cities from practicing effective local control.
“There was a cancer-presumption bill in the last session,” Hayes notes. “And we’ve had a couple of other things occur that would require certain monies be expended for certain kinds of illnesses or leave time. These are very expensive propositions that just because a larger city might be able to afford some of it, [a smaller city] might not be able to. You have to allow the resources available locally to craft true solutions, and anytime it’s dictated from the top down, it typically does not work very well.”
At the end of the day, Hayes says that local control is mostly about giving each city’s residents the ability to control their own destiny. And it’s a popular take among the state’s municipalities — as of 2020, the state was home to 500 incorporated cities and towns and all but one of them (a newly incorporated town) are League members, according to Hayes.
“They ought to be able to decide if they want to tax themselves, they ought to be able to decide if they want to have a park, they ought to be able to buy a new fire truck, and they elect those city officials to do it,” Hayes says. “Our calling is not to make the League great, our calling is to make cities and towns great. Arkansas is fortunate to be set up the way it is, and the cities and towns that exist in this state — and the leadership that exists in those places — are great and they make the state great.”