Con­way road named for two ex-law­mak­ers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - DE­BRA HALE-SHEL­TON

CON­WAY — When the sign went up chang­ing the name of Con­way’s West­ern Loop in­ter­change to the Baker Wills Park­way, lo­cal of­fi­cials be­lieved the hon­orary name was an ap­pro­pri­ate thank-you to for­mer state leg­is­la­tors Gil­bert Baker and Rob­bie Wills.

The ques­tion is whether the new name for the stretch of high­way is le­gal in light of a state law ap­proved in April 2013.

Though Baker Wills Park­way wasn’t ded­i­cated un­til June of this year, its his­tory dates to Jan. 8, 2013, when the Con­way City Coun­cil voted 7-0 to ap­prove a mo­tion to name the fu­ture in­ter­change af­ter Baker, a for­mer GOP se­na­tor, and Wills, a for­mer Demo­cratic rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

Min­utes from the City Coun­cil’s pub­lic meet­ing in­di­cate that the mayor at the time, Tab Townsell, told coun­cil mem­bers that the two men had helped the city ob­tain $10 mil­lion in state funds to sup­ple­ment other money from what is now the Arkansas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion.

But Act 1225 of 2013 sought to reg­u­late the nam­ing of pub­lic build­ings, struc­tures or fa­cil­i­ties af­ter cer­tain in­di­vid­u­als to pre­vent in­cum­bent can­di­dates from hav­ing un­fair ad­van­tages in fu­ture po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns.

That law says pub­licly funded struc­tures shall not be named for any­one who was liv­ing when the struc­ture was com­pleted if in the 10 pre­ced­ing years the per­son was elected to a fed­eral, state, county or mu­nic­i­pal of­fice, or if the per­son had held such an of­fice and been paid for that ser­vice.

Wills, 49, wrapped up his leg­isla­tive ten­ure in 2011; Baker, 60, in 2013. Wills is also a for­mer jus­tice of the peace.

The statute in­cludes some ex­cep­tions such as a per­son’s birth­place, a cur­rent or for­mer pris­oner of war, or some­one who is at least 75 years old and re­tired. Also ex­empted are struc­tures for which 50 per­cent of the funds used to pay for the project was pri­vate money.

Townsell, who is now ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the re­gional Metro­plan, which has a heavy fo­cus on trans­porta­tion is­sues in cen­tral Arkansas, said re­cently that he did not know about the statute. He said only the lo­cal por­tion of the high­way is named af­ter Baker and Wills.

For­mer state Rep. John Bur­ris, R-Har­ri­son, spon­sored the leg­is­la­tion that be­came Act 1225, which does not have a grand­fa­ther clause. Bur­ris said the law wasn’t in­tended to be retroac­tive be­cause “there would be a lot of re­nam­ing” if it had been.

“The point wasn’t to have to go re­make a bunch of signs,” Bur­ris said Thurs­day. “The point was just mov­ing for­ward.”

Con­way City At­tor­ney Chuck Claw­son said he thought the in­ter­change’s new name was le­gal since Act 1225 didn’t take ef­fect un­til a few months af­ter the City Coun­cil voted on the name.

Claw­son, who wasn’t city at­tor­ney in 2013, said he wouldn’t have ex­pected the leg­is­la­tion to con­tain a grand­fa­ther clause, a pro­vi­sion that ex­empts things al­ready in place be­fore a law takes ef­fect.

“I fig­ure it was from that point mov­ing for­ward,” Claw­son said of the statute’s ap­pli­ca­tion. “I think [the law] would have been ap­pli­ca­ble if we had named [the in­ter­change] in Jan­uary 2014.”

Con­way Mayor Bart Castle­berry said Thurs­day that two peo­ple have con­tacted him to com­plain about the park­way’s name.

Baker, who also has been a lob­by­ist and po­lit­i­cal fundraiser, has been in the news since early 2014 be­cause of a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion of cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions made in­di­rectly to for­mer Cir­cuit Judge Michael Mag­gio’s fi­nal ju­di­cial cam­paign.

At one point, Mag­gio im­pli­cated Baker and nurs­ing-home owner Michael Mor­ton in a bribery scheme but has since sought un­suc­cess­fully to with­draw his guilty plea. Mag­gio is now serv­ing a 10-year fed­eral prison sen­tence. Baker and Mor­ton have de­nied wrong­do­ing and have not been charged with a crime.

Baker also made head­lines last year af­ter a drunken-driv­ing ar­rest and a sub­se­quent find­ing that he had tested pos­i­tive for metham­phetamine.

“Gil­bert made a mis­take,” Castle­berry said in ref­er­ence to Baker’s ar­rest and drug test. “He would be the first to ad­mit he made a mis­take.

“It’s not a life­style. … We have all made mis­takes.”

Castle­berry de­scribed Baker as a friend and “a great guy” and said the for­mer se­na­tor had done “a lot of re­ally great things” for Con­way and Faulkner County.

“It’s time for peo­ple to for­give and move on,” Castle­berry said.

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