Former Fort Smith Director Don Hutchings seeks a return to the board

story by Ryan Saylor

He may have left the Fort Smith Board of Directors in 2012, but former City Director Don Hutchings is hoping the the goodbye will not be permanent.

Hutchings, the senior pastor at Evangel Temple Assembly of God in Fort Smith, confirmed Wednesday (March 19) that he would seek a second full term in what he hopes will be a return to the Board later this year.

Initially declining to run for re-election in 2012 due to a building project then in planning at the church, it will likely come as little surprise to many observers of city politics that the minister is looking for to return to the Board, as he has attended Board meetings as an audience member for the last several months. He said a return was possible due to his church's building project getting funded and off the ground.

"We're building an $8 million facility across the street (from the current sanctuary). I needed time to meet with builders, architects and the church. It's (now) running better than I ever imagined and I feel like it's alright to come back on the Board — if the voters will have me."

Should he be successful in his bid to replace retiring City Director Philip Merry, Hutchings said he wants to make it a priority to get citizens involved in their city government.

"Coming to the meetings, it's interesting to see who doesn't come. Like last night (March 18), most of the room was empty. Sitting in the audience, you get a new perspective. So we've got to get more of our people plugged into our process."

Reflecting on his service on the Board from 2009 to 2012, Hutchings said there were many successes, including the hiring of City Administrator Ray Gosack and the lowering of monthly sanitation rates, along with "about 100 other great things that happened."

The Board of Directors, he added, has continued to work hard for the people of Fort Smith.

"I don't have any criticisms of the Board. I have a new respect for the Board as I sit back as a spectator. I realize how important they are and how hard they work. And actually, it's given me a greater appreciation of what the administrator, the mayor and the Board do for our city."

Should Hutchings win a seat on the Board, he said his primary focus would be on attracting more high tech jobs to the Fort Smith region, as well as working with small businesses, adding that his previous term on the Board was spent "trying to help them with the process of establishing businesses here in the community."

But if there is one thing he hopes to correct, it is perceived problems with how the city's planning department works with developers and homeowners.

"I served for five years on the planning commission and I didn't realize how much time that the planning department takes with potential new businesses," he said. "But there's evidently a problem with some communication not being as efficient as possible. There are some hoops to jump through, but every city has that. It is a challenge that will always be there, but we can make it better. Training, education, awareness that this is how it works. …My goal is to not assume that people know, even if they're asking questions, but to walk them through."

As for how Hutchings — who has already given up serving on the Board previously due to obligations to his church — plans to balance his service to the city and his obligation to his growing congregation should his election prove successful, he said it would be a challenge, but it would be no different than the last time he was on the Board.

"God has blessed me with a tremendous staff of ministers. We have seven full-time pastors and something I really wanted to stress is the church life and the city director life would never interfere with each other. I never talk about (political) issues from the pulpit. I never use our facility or our people (for political purposes)."

He added that dividing his obligations between the two would simply come down to time management.

"I never knew until pastoring how much joy, but also how much time management, there is. But it's not a big problem."

The filing period for city director and mayor will open May 14, according to City Clerk Sherri Gard, though she said packets are already available for pickup at her office, located at 623 Garrison Avenue. So far, she said Hutchings and two other unknown individuals have collected packets for the Position 7 At-Large director position.