Fort Smith Board discusses legal billing issue, library millage election

story by Ryan Saylor

The Fort Smith Board of Directors will hear the city's side of recent allegations by attorney Matt Campbell that the city was billed for legal services never provided in its defense of a lawsuit brought by Campbell.

Campbell, a Little Rock-based attorney and counsel for a group of police officers engaged in a whistleblower lawsuit against the city, made the claims on his Blue Hog Report blog.

City Director Philip Merry brought the issue to the forefront at the end of Tuesday's (June 3) Board meeting, where he asked for a certified public accountant (CPA) to do a review of the Daily and Woods Law Firm's billing to the city. He had also proposed forming a five-member council to evaluate whether the city should continue paying an outside law firm to represent the city on a contract basis or whether the city should employ its own staff attorney(s).

In announcing his desire to see an accounting firm review the billing by Daily and Woods, Merry said it was not based on an assumption of guilt.

"No wrong doing is assumed in any way on this motion," he said. "As stewards of other people's money — that being the taxpayer's money — we must assure an open air, objective full review of the process to our taxpayers."

As Merry was making his proposal for the independent committee to review the city's employment or contracting with attorneys for services, Mayor Sandy Sanders cut Merry off and said since he had not presented the items at the beginning of the meeting when directors were asked whether they had items to add to the agenda, it was not a proper motion.

Instead, it was decided that the city's contract with Daily and Woods, as well as the firm's billing of the city, would be reviewed at a June 10 study session of the Board.

In other business, the Board set a special meeting for June 10 prior to the study session to consider a special election in August for a millage increase for the library. According to state law, the city must authorize the library's ability to hold an election to raise its millage.

According to Fort Smith Public Library Executive Director Jennifer Goodson, the library has not had a millage increase in more than 50 years. The library's board of directors is seeking a two mil increase, which would raise the rate on Fort Smith landowners to three mils, or what she said was about $60 per year on a $100,000 home.

The Board balked at holding a special election when no other elections would be held in conjunction to the library vote.

"You know Jennifer, I think the timing is bad," said City Director George Catsavis. "You know how the economy is around here and how people are struggling to pay their bills, including me. I've had to raise the deductible on my insurance to keep my escrow in balance. Two mils doesn't sound like much, but this is a bad time for it."

In response, Goodson said the library wanted to add services, including streaming video, and could not without the millage increase.

In addition to the point of adding services, Goodson said the library has had to dip into strategic reserves during the last two years at a time when it was serving a larger number of patrons, another reason why the library wanted to ask for a millage increase.

City Director Mike Lorenz asked why the library could not wait to hold the election until November in order to save money. Goodson said such a delay could mean the millage vote would get overlooked by the partisan elections locally and at a state level that would be on November's ballot.

In all, she said the cost of an election would be $30,000 and would be paid for out of library funding, meaning the city would not be out any money on the election, nor would the county election commission.

The special Board meeting will take place June 10 at noon in the library, with the study session on Daily and Woods to follow.

The Board also tabled a resolution expressing support for a sustainability initiative proposed by the University of Arkansas at a study session last week.

The Board tabled the resolution following outcry from citizens who fear the resolution was part of a United Nations act that pushed for more sustainable growth on a global level. Attorney Joey McCutchen told the Board that the resolution would also put unnecessary regulation on Fort Smith citizens.

The resolution will be investigated in more detail at a later study session as a result of Tuesday's tabling.

The Board also failed to make a motion to adopt a new governing policy, with the proposed governance policy dying due to a lack of a motion. City Clerk Sherri Gard said as a result, the item would not be brought up for another vote.