Conway road named for two ex-lawmakers
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.