By JOSH TROY
The people have spoken. History was made just before 10 p.m. Tuesday when the final results came in. On January 1, 2006, the cities of Helena and West Helena will become one.
Approximately 3,500 voters turned out and voted in favor of consolidation, making the unified community the 25th largest city in Arkansas with a population of approximately 15,000. The merged city’s name will be Helena-West Helena.
The majority of residents who voted in each city were required to approve the measure.
Consolidation passed in Helena by an 867 to 559 margin. In West Helena, consolidation passed by a 993 to 609 margin. The overall vote for merging the Twin Cities was 1,860 to 1,168.
On the ballot, the people had the choice of being for or against the name Helena-West Helena for the merged city. Again, the majority of voters in each city were required to support the measure. Otherwise, the city’s name would have been West Helena – the larger of the two merging cities. By a vote of 813 to 530, the name Helena-West Helena passed in Helena. By a vote of 872 to 670, West Helena residents approved the name Helena-West Helena. The overall vote for the new name was 1,685 to 1,200.
A wide variety of reactions came from leaders in the communities.
West Helena Mayor Johnny Weaver opposed consolidation, but he acknowledged that the people have spoken and he is prepared to move the community forward.
“I was not for consolidation,” Weaver said. “I don’t know how it’s going to work. Now, that it’s in both mayor’s hands we have to deal with it and the main thing is that the majority of the people voted for consolidation and we have to do the will of the people. Hopefully, if the people were willing to vote together they can work together and make it successful.”
Pursuant to Amendment 7 of the Arkansas Constitution, West Helena Alderman Calvin Holden said the council “might” vote to repeal the election. As of now, the council has not made a final decision as to what course of action would be taken.
“The council is going to have to meet and decide what we are going to do,” said Holden.
Representatives from Citizens Alliance for Progress – the campaign that pushed to merge the Twin Cities – expressed joy and satisfaction over the election results.
CAP spokesperson for West Helena James Valley stressed that the citizens did a positive thing for their cities.
“John Kennedy would have said, ‘Ask not what your city can do for you, ask what you can do for your city,'” said Valley.
“I think the biggest thing in this whole thing is we’re learning how to win as a community and work together,” said Helena CAP spokesperson Jared Zeiser. “I think this is a huge breath of life for the citizens of Helena and West Helena. I think this shows us all what positive things can happen when we cross the lines such as two cities or even racial divides and work together. I think that’s what made this happen. It has not been a racial effort. It’s been what both blacks and whites have decided for Phillips County that have been working together with leadership that’s working for the best of the citizens, rather than working for themselves.
“This is just the first step,” continued Zeiser. “The next step is seeking positive and capable leadership for the new mayor and city council.”
“I just want to thank the citizens for getting out and voting,” said former state representative Barbara King. “The journey of the progress has begun with the union of the two cities and we have a long way to go but we have taken the first step. I’d especially like to thank James Valley, Gordon Cunningham, Andrew Bagley, Eddie Schieffler, and Jared Zeiser and all the volunteers and all the people who financially supported the campaign. It’s just a great day when all of the citizens got out to vote for our future. It’s just a great day.”
Fran Anderson, who chairs Weaver’s advisory committee and the Phillips County Republican Party and a member of the Phillips County Election Commission, phoned The Daily World this morning and reported that she relayed the election results to Gov. Mike Huckabee’s office and Fox News.
“Now that it passed, I hope that it works. My only concern is that it doesn’t drain West Helena’s finances especially with all of the lawsuits that are going on. I’ve had real mixed emotions over the whole thing and it was very hard on Maxine Miller (PCEC member) because of Mayor Miller (Helena Mayor Dr. Robert Miller) being her father. I pray that it works. I know that we made history last night being the first city to consolidate in the state of Arkansas. It was probably the most draining election I’ve ever been to.”
“This is a great day for Phillips County,” said Helena Alderman Jay Hollowell. “I think we’re getting our foot out of our mouth and putting our best foot forward. We’ve got a lot of good leaders that are still here – men, women, black, and white. What we’ve got to do now is draw our boundaries that will be reflective of the community as a whole.
“We have to have leaders run for office who are interested in the combined communities,” continued Hollowell. “We are sending a signal that we can work together and are not a divided community.”
Hollowell urged residents of the new city – Helena-West Helena – to have patience as the leaders work toward improving the community and taking care of issues such as the outstanding debts incurred by both cities.
“There’s going to be a whole lot of growing pains involved with this process,” said Hollowell.
“I think it’s the people’s choice,” said former West Helena Alderman Bob Gaston. “That’s all we did from the start – put it on a ballot for the people to decide. What the people decide is what we’re bound to do. I think it’s good for Phillips County.”
Gaston stressed that the “lopsided” vote supporting consolidation sent a message.
“I think the leadership that’s opposed this all along was basically selfish,” Gaston said. “They had their own hidden agenda.”
Gaston stated that for the new cities to move forward, all outstanding debts must be buried. Possibilities Gaston mentioned included obtaining grants and a one-cent sales tax for a few years.
“I’m so proud,” said former West Helena Alderman Tommy Hunt. “This is history in the making and I am so proud to be a part of it. People have asked me over and over again, ‘Why are you so strongly involved with this?’ My reply was ‘it’s not for me or most of the people around here. It’s for the young people still in grade school and Head Start.
Hunt thanked the people in the churches and surrounding communities for taking the opportunity “to vote for a brighter future.”