The story is interesting, not only because it is rare for a state Representative to choose sides between cities in his district, but also because he went against his hometown to appease a few politicians in his district.
Southside is a new city, incorporated in 2014. The cities of Batesville and Southside are both located in Independence County and are both in Rep. Sturch’s district. Batesville is on the north side of the White River and, as the name implies, Southside is on the south side of the river. However, the Batesville city boundary also includes a long narrow corridor on the south side of the river. The corridor is along Hwy 167 and is just wide enough to take in the many businesses along the highway.
What moved Southside to incorporate? The Batesville City Council decided to annex the Southside community. Once word got out, residents in Southside met and began to organize to oppose the annexation. Even Batesville residents came out to support their Southside neighbors in opposing Batesville’s proposed annexation.
Southside’s first Mayor Ray Bowman described it this way:
“Southside residents attended meetings to express their displeasure with the planned annexation, and many Batesville residents came out to support their neighbors to the south. When it became apparent that the city of Batesville still intended to move forward with its plan, Bowman said, it was time to seek incorporation.”[i]
Southside residents avoided annexation by Batesville by incorporating as a city.
As soon as incorporation was approved, residents near Southside wanted to be annexed into the city. This news did not sit well with a few Batesville politicians who still wanted to expand south of the river and were mad that Southside had been able to become a city. They wanted to stop Southside by having their new Representative, James Sturch, to introduce legislation to put a barrier in the way of Southside’s growth.
Rep. Sturch’s effort to stop Southside’s growth
Rep. Sturch agreed to do the bidding of these politicians and go against his Southside hometown. He filed House Bill 1657 of 2015 to stop Southside’s proposed growth.
There was already a law on the books to limit the growth of cities with a population of less than 1,000 residents, but it didn’t apply to Southside because it was larger than that. Sturch used this law as a starting point. His bill amended the law to delete the population number to make it apply to other cities. If his bill had passed, it would have prohibited Southside (and other cities) from annexing an area of more than 10% of its current land area in any one year.
Section 2 of Sturch’s bill would have changed the law this way:
(c) However, a municipality having a population of fewer than one thousand (1,000) persons shall not annex in any one (1) calendar year contiguous lands in excess of ten percent (10%) of the current land area of the municipality.
Being a small city, the bill would have stopped the requested annexation into Southside. And, it would have taken many years for the whole area desiring annexation to become part of Southside.
His bill would have given a few Batesville politicians more time to try to push Batesville annexation south of the river, or at least hold hostage Southside’s growth until these politicians could get concessions from Southside.
The bill passed the Arkansas House of Representatives without debate, but once it got to the Arkansas Senate, it stalled and eventually Sturch had to give up and recall the bill.
With the bill dead, Southside and the residents of the adjoining area moved forward, and the voters of both areas approved city expansion.
Any fallout in Independence County?
Taking sides between two cities in your district is not the brightest thing to do, but Sturch’s action looks even more reckless because: 1. Southside had been his hometown; and 2. Even many of his constituents in Batesville had been supportive of their Southside neighbors.
Because the bill died, few Southside residents were aware of his effort to sabotage them, and he was reelected in 2016. But anger about Sturch picking sides did not go away. With hard feelings still lingering, talk began to grow about another opponent for Sturch in 2018. How serious this effort would have been we will not know.
Rep. James Sturch chose not to run again from his House district. Instead, he announced his candidacy for state Senate District 19 which includes Independence, Izard, and Sharp Counties and portions of Fulton and Randolph Counties.
Running in a new district may help him avoid the Southside issue, but the senate district still includes the cities of Southside and Batesville, where many residents of both cities disagree with his effort to sabotage Southside. Also, he must convince other cities he will not give them the same kind of treatment he gave Southside.
CORRECTION: The original posting of this article stated that Rep. James Sturch now lives in Batesville, rather than Southside. This was not correct and has been deleted from the article. Rep. James Sturch’s address is a Batesville, Arkansas address, however he does in fact live in Southside as Southside residents still have Batesville, Arkansas addresses. It should be noted that Rep. James Sturch’s address was NOT the point of the article and readers should focus on the record, bill, and story, not the address of a politician.