Discouraged and disappointed

Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley

One may admire the perseverance of Fort Smith City Directors Kevin Settle and Mike Lorenz in their effort to quash any discussion of how the city handles its legal needs, but their passion is raising more red flags among citizens not prone to cynicism, conspiracy or WTF!?

The focus of this essay is on the Tuesday night (July 15) Board meeting actions of Settle and Lorenz, but we must first review the origins that brought us to what may prove to be a classic example of how to raise insurmountable doubts about your ability to govern simply by opening your mouth.

A few weeks ago legitimate questions were raised about the billing practices by the law firm of Daily & Woods in its representation of the city of Fort Smith. These were not necessarily contract-ending or government-crumbling allegations, and it’s likely that any public relations person could have provided a positive response strategy resulting in adequate resolution. (Feel free to follow this link to bone up on the issue.)

But instead of a professional and pragmatic response to the serious allegations, the city of Fort Smith sought to kill the messenger (Little Rock attorney Matt Campbell), allowed the alleged to self-investigate the allegations and then report innocence with a straight face, and the Board of Directors twice used a rarely-used ordinance to privately remove public discussion of how to respond to the allegations. What emerged is now a cloud of uncertainty in which many citizens wonder if the attempts by Settle, Lorenz, Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders and City Administrator Ray Gosack to scuttle discussion were worse than any truth there may have been to the initial allegations.

We return to Tuesday in which Directors Settle and Lorenz receive a “D” grade for their opposition to repeal an ordinance that allows the Board to privately remove agenda items that were approved in a public format. Let me restate that: Four members of the Board of Directors, led by Settle and Lorenz, voted to allow themselves to kill something in private which they, for whatever reason, do not want to discuss in public. (Feel free to link here to the story about the Tuesday night Board vote.)

The “D” grade is given because the actions of Settle and Lorenz were discouraging and disappointing, and disrespectful to the fundamental notion of protecting minority interests and views in a representative government. The argument Settle and Lorenz (and, unfortunately, to which Directors Andre Good and Keith Lau agreed) used to retain their ability to conduct business outside the public view was that any two directors could bog down Board meetings with triviality and nonsense. It was a false argument in that long meetings have not been a problem, whereas Directors discussing public business in private arenas has and continues to be a problem.

It is absurdly over-the-top yet painfully necessary to reach back to the Founding Fathers’ (primarily Madison and Adams; and think, “tyranny of the majority”) work to protect the interests of minority viewpoints and factions as a reminder to Settle, Lorenz, et al., that governance isn’t pretty. A representative government was never meant to be easy or devoid of badgering from those with minority viewpoints. Voting rights for non-property owners, voting rights for women, and the abolishment of slavery were once the viewpoints of fringe political minorities who refused efforts to keep their views out of the public discourse.

Settle said Tuesday that allowing two directors to approve a board agenda item without the ability to privately remove said item would lead to inefficiency. Dear Director Settle: Efficiency is never a preference when it negates transparency.

Settle and Lorenz are borrowing problems and/or creating a straw-man argument by asserting that repealing an ordinance preventing private removal of publicly-placed board items will result in bad government. Let’s remember, the pursuit of a more transparent government is the reason this issue is an issue. Legitimate questions were raised about the relationship between the city and its legal services. Those legitimate issues were quashed by the Board using a non-transparent method of governance. The growing number of people (including prominent business leaders) who have reached out to me in recent weeks have not expressed concern about the possibility of inappropriately inefficient actions of two Board members; their deep and growing concerns are with the curious and unexplained actions by a majority of Board members to repeatedly and with the use of arcane ordinances avoid public conversations about the public’s business.

Having watched Fort Smith city government for more than 20 years, please know I avoid hyperbole and joy in saying that the dysfunction and level of Board competence has reached alarming high and low levels, respectively. With every effort to avoid transparency, Settle and Lorenz make it more clear they are unsuited for this level of public service.

Fort Smith citizens should know that city functions and board actions have produced results that are not good. There remain legitimate doubts about our legal services. From that there are growing doubts about overall municipal transparency – doubts also arising from the fact we were just recently made aware that the city has been without an internal auditor for six months and counting. And now we have a lawsuit alleging potential violations of Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act related to Board efforts to privately alter public decisions. The city does not have a good track record with lawsuits involving violations of Freedom of Information Act laws.

If it is some complex “House of Cards” schemery of Messrs. Settle, Lorenz, Sanders and Gosack to push citizens to more seriously consider a new form of government, then my future essays will attempt admiration for their low-rent Machiavellian plans.

Until then, I am discouraged and disappointed in the capacities of elected and hired leadership of a city with such great potential.