OPEN DOOR POLICY

February 1, 2011 | By More

Written by Dianne Edwards

Newly-elected Russellville Mayor Bill Eaton grimaces slightly as he rises from his desk at the displaced City Hall Office to close his door. It’s mid-January and the city’s move to their newly-remodeled headquarters in Historic Downtown Russellville is just around the corner.

“I have an open door policy,” he explains, “Something I pledged during my campaign for mayor. I like to keep my office door always open. But… well, the close quarters. You understand.”

Edging the door closed becomes necessary as the volume level escalates outside the Mayor’s door of the temporary headquarters on Shamrock Boulevard. The apparent energy of staff members re-entering the common lobby area following lunch, outside meetings and official errands, is a pleasant sound and a tribute to the comfortable atmosphere within the current walls.

Listed on the city’s site are Eaton’s campaign promises, which he pledges to focus upon during his tenure. They include: a Comprehensive Drainage Plan, a “Clean and Green Russellville,” restoring confidence in City Government, enhanced Police and Fire Protection plus enhanced Mobility and Trail System Development. Also pledged are: easy access to the Mayor, supporting Main Street Russellville and supporting Arkansas Valley Alliance for Economic Development.

In keeping with his “easy access to the Mayor” pledge, is “Coffee with the Mayor,” the brainchild that sprung from conversations with supporters during Eaton’s campaign for the position.

Early in his run for Mayor the idea of meeting with members of the public in an informal, regularly-scheduled format was discussed, then implemented following Eaton’s ascent to the office. Although future “coffee” locations may change, the initial invitation to hold the event at West Main Daylight Donuts by owner Mark Neihouse offered a first, then second location for the 10 a.m. gathering. Everyone is invited, further illustrating Eaton’s “Open Door Policy” approach.

The purpose is to meet with citizens and gather information about their ideas, suggestions and concerns. The meetings give citizens of all ages an avenue to discuss items such as code enforcement, drainage issues, commercial and residential rezoning, the newly-proposed trail system and street projects. The conversations are engaging and no subject is off limits.

Those attending leave the casual meeting encouraged by the Mayor’s pledge to follow up with them with answers, or an update as to their concern. Eaton, with legal tablet in hand, carefully considered each topic, making appropriate notes for follow-up.

Future coffees will be held the first Wednesday of each month at 10 a.m. with confirmation and location available on the city’s web site, www.russellvillearkansas.org/government/mayor. A plan to hold two coffees a month is being discussed.

A brief history of Bill Eaton reveals his appreciation for “the angels and mentors in his life. I’ve been lucky,” he explains. “It seems I’ve always had someone, a sort of guardian angel, there for me at times I’ve needed it most. Over my lifetime, I only recall once ever really searching for a job.”

He has a self-confessed “military side.” His past training is evident in his organizational style.

Eaton spent 29 years in military service – three in active duty, serving in Vietnam, and a quarter of a century in the National Guard. He grew up listing to radio war sound bites and watching the resulting war movies that followed during his elementary years. His family’s military involvement ‘greatly influenced my thoughts,’ Eaton confessed.

His grandfather was a World War I veteran; his father and uncles served in World War II while his mother worked in the defense industry. Both society and the economy were trying to recover from the aftermath of WWII during Eaton’s early youth. He recalled “playing Army.” And he remembered when the Korean ‘Conflict’ ended he told his dad there’d be ‘no more wars for me to fight in.’

“Well, I was wrong about that one,” he added.

Before he entered the military, Eaton attended college at Little Rock University (now UALR.) He had been living in Little Rock with his parents. His mother and father were moving to Mobile, Ala., but Eaton had other plans. He decided to transfer to what was Arkansas Polytechnic College (now Arkansas Tech University) in Russellville.

Knowing he’d have to have a job, and having worked summer jobs for Southwestern Bell, I applied with Western Arkansas Telephone Company.” He landed a job as an engineer’s assistant and began his Tech adventure. (He later worked as a draftsman, in management, marketing and eventually as an engineer, retiring from Century Tel in December 2006.)

The young Eaton’s Tech adventure included moving into the dormitory, a room meant for two young men with two beds. Instead, Eaton soon discovered the room would be housing four young men in two sets of bunk beds sharing one desk; with no closet space, the students were required to keep their personal belongings in a suitcase.

Having grown up without siblings, “I lasted one week,” Eaton chuckled. “Then I called my maternal grandparents who lived in Russellville and I asked them if I could move into their spare bedroom – they eagerly agreed.”

When Eaton transferred to Tech with 50 hours to his credit, he was given the option as to whether or not he wanted to participate in the ROTC program. At that time, an undergraduate with less than 50 hours did not have that option — it was a requirement.

He declined and continued his studies, working at the phone company. He married his college sweetheart, Sharon, during his junior year. That was December 1966.

As a student, Eaton soon found himself struggling with a particular course, Arkansas History.

“It was the only thing I’d ever failed at in my life, and I was not happy. I decided I was just going to just quit school, but fortunately a guardian angel, P.K. Merrill, stepped in.”

Merrill was head of the history department at Tech and having heard Eaton wanted to leave school, “stopped me one day after class.” Merrill invited Eaton to his house to have coffee.

“He told me emphatically that I was NOT going to drop out and asked me what I was interested in. I told him I really liked sociology, criminology and penology.”

When Eaton left the Merrill home, he had his class schedule for the next four semesters in his hand. He followed the schedule until graduation in January of 1968.

Eaton had taken the Air Force pilot’s exam and scored extremely high. Wearing glasses, Eaton knew he’d never be a pilot but was interested in navigation. He’d been encouraged by his family that if he were to enter the military, he should do so as an officer.

He had accepted an offer with Western Arkansas Telephone before graduating from Arkansas Tech with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Deciding to pursue a master’s degree in criminology, Eaton applied to, and was accepted by Tulane University in New Orleans. As luck would have it and as the Vietnam War loomed large, Eaton received his draft notice.

Circumstances prevented him from entering the Air Force Officer Candidate School as he had hoped but he found his way into Army OCS in Fort Benning, Ga. – “where I received six months of the best training of my life,” Eaton recalled.

It was while in basic training at Fort Benning that Eaton received notification that his application sent earlier to the FBI Academy had been accepted, which he unfortunately had to decline, explaining he was already “serving his country.”

“They said they’d keep my spot open and I had thoughts of returning but life led me in a different way.”

He left the Army as a First Lieutenant and returned to his job with the phone company, which had become Continental Telephone.

“I resisted joining the guard until I found myself with a new baby, a new car, a new house… funds were sparse,” he remembered. “Even though (the phone company) been required to take me back, if it hadn’t been for another guardian angel, J.R. Owen, who stood up for me, I might not have been employed.”

“Different people have had a major effect on my life,” he explained. “Owen, and his wife Elaine, were among them.

Other ‘angel’ advice came from long-time friend Heartsill Bartlett who convinced Eaton to stay in the National Guard until retirement, “giving me great advice,” Eaton said.

When Eaton retired from Century Tel in December 2006, he’d already made plans to serve, this time, the public. He took office as an alderman for Ward 2, Position 2. Then running for mayor of Russellville was never a consideration.

It wasn’t until after Christmas of 2009 that Eaton, with the encouragement of supporters, broached the subject with wife Sharon.

“I asked for her support, told her I really wanted for her to be happy too, but that this was something I really wanted to do,” Eaton recalled.”I felt like things were on the horizon for our city and I really wanted to be part of the change, to serve in a capacity other than alderman.”

“After she asked me if I was crazy,” he added, laughing, “she told me she would always be there, by my side.”

The intent of the new Mayor of Russellville and his current administration is to “keep you, the citizens we serve, informed as to how we are progressing and what our actions have been.”

He urges constituents to “look for continued progress updates” using both traditional and social media.

“We will use every means at our disposal to keep you informed as we all work together for a better Russellville.”

Two words seem to earmark the present Mayor’s term – an open door and accountability. So far, he seems to be on the road to achieving both.

 

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