Comprehensive coverage conundrum

Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
mtilley@thecitywire.com

There was a recent meeting of the steering committee that is part of this $340,000 comprehensive planning study by the city of Fort Smith to figure out something about something related to the city’s development future. Something interesting or important or maybe nothing noteworthy happened at this meeting. The City Wire did not attend the Feb. 17 meeting, so I don’t know.

With each month the city expends about $19,000 on this study, I begin to question if city officials are really all in with this effort. To begin with, the city hired consultants who just a few weeks into the process didn’t realize we had a commercial airport in Fort Smith. These consultants during their initial visit used a presentation that listed the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center and the Young Emerging Leaders as “ongoing” and active organizations.

Just a few weeks ago this process unveiled what it considered important discoveries. They included: We in Fort Smith have exhibited a lack of deliberate action with respect to supporting and/or subsidizing commercial development in and around the city; The riverfront area has not been adequately developed; There are a lot of dollars for products and services leaving the Fort Smith area; and, The regional economy is not doing well.

You, Kind Reader, could have randomly gathered up 10 Fort Smithians for a Happy Meal discussion at your local McDonald’s and come up with a list of more insightful findings. And if you only billed the city $1,000 each for those 10 Happy Meals, we’d all have been better off.

It was the Feb. 17 meeting notice that may have been the deal breaker with respect to our willingness to give this process further time and attention. We learned from a Monday morning (Feb. 17) city e-mail about a Monday evening meeting. We found that to be telling. This process is so critical to the city’s future that media outlets in the area received less than 8 hours notice to cover one of their meetings in this $19,000-a-month-process. By their actions, people and organizations will ultimately let you know what they consider important.

We sent an e-mail asking the city if there had been a previous notice sent on the meeting. It could have been that the date and/or time was wrong. We finally had to call a city staffer late in the afternoon when we did not get a response to that e-mail.

It turns out the city had placed an ad about the Feb. 17 meeting in the local newspaper. It was one of those tiny classified ads that one might not see unless looking for a cheap dishwasher, transmission parts to a 1983 Ford Bronco or signs of an out-of-touch government. This tiny newspaper advertisement and lack of media notification comes from a comprehensive planning process with a vision statement that includes “Uniting people, institutions and government” as a goal.

Sure, an archaic Arkansas law that requires public meetings be published in the local “paper of record” is why the city buys a meeting notice ad in the classifieds. But that’s the minimum effort required for the city to technically be in compliance with public notification rules. By their actions, people and organizations will ultimately let you know what they consider important.

Or maybe a newspaper is where city officials believe people still get a majority of their news. Maybe the “I only get my news from the newspaper” crowd is the demographic the city prefers to attend the meetings.

Fort Smith officials have shown a pattern with respect to communicating with the public, and the pattern has little to do with respect for communicating with the public. We might remember there was a time in early 2012 the Fort Smith Board of Directors decided to “save” $7,400 by cutting televised board meetings. After several months of public ridicule, the Board “found” the money to restore the televised meetings. This was several months before the Board found $340,000 for a study with a vision statement that includes “Uniting people, institutions and government.” More recently, we learned that the city failed to adequately notify most members of the media of a Feb. 18 meeting of the Central Improvement Business District.

The city’s communication disconnect is not limited to meeting notices. For example, the same city that appears to aggressively push a “Shop Local” campaign recently hired an out-of-town contractor over a local contractor to build the $11 million aquatics park. By their actions, people and organizations will ultimately let you know what they consider important.

This essay was ready to be published when on Feb. 28 we received notice from the city of a “Comprehensive Plan Open House” to be held 3 to 7 p.m., March 17, at the River Park Events Building. That was the extent of the notice. No agenda. No format and no summary of the purpose of the event. Your guess is as good as mine as to who will attend to represent the city, and what information will be updated or presented or requested. By their actions, people and organizations will ultimately let you know what they consider important.

It could be that the city is doing us all a favor. There is something to be said for not being frequently reminded about a $340,000 taxpayer-funded process that has little to no potential to make transformational improvements in governance and economic development.

I said all that to say this: The City Wire may not attend remaining meetings of this so-called comprehensive planning process of which I’ve previously labeled as a questionable outlay of time and money.

By their actions, people and organizations will ultimately let you know what they consider important, and I fear our coverage may cause a few folks to consider important this incomprehensible comprehensive study.

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