Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
With Fort Smith city government looking like Petrino’s face the day after his skirt chasing motorcycle trek, some are calling for a new form of municipal governance.
Fort Smith has a city administrator form of government in which an elected seven-person board of directors hires the administrator, sets policy, appoints people to city boards and commissions and approves budgets. Sometimes these functions are conducted in public, and every so often the board actions are not puzzling.
The growing number of people who believe a new form of government is needed say they are frustrated by issues involving transparency, leadership and a concern that city governance has for the past several years not involved transparency or leadership. Those frustrated folks, however, are expecting something never promised. One doesn’t shop for a good suit at Walmart. Don’t look for a large and tasty meat tray at a vegetarian convention.
“We are a unified team committed to consistently providing citizen-focused services for the advancement of a thriving community,” states the city’s mission statement.
Nothing in the statement about being open or accountable. And one is foolish to assume that advancing “a thriving community” means advancing Fort Smith. Some board actions have caused individuals and businesses to take their families, investments and enterprises elsewhere, and therefore helped other communities thrive. It may not be that the board and city government are dysfunctional, it could be that your expectations from this form of government are unreasonable. It’s not the board’s fault your expectations are too high.
However, if you are one of those demanding and anal type-A persons who possess the quaint notion that a local government should be something more than a series of train wrecks, there are options.
According to the National League of Cities (NLC), the most common form of city government is the council-manager form (similar to the city administrator). Of the 30 largest U.S. cities by population, 20 have a mayor-council government, nine have a council-manager and one city (Portland, Ore.) has a commission government.
Most folks who seek a new form of government seem to prefer the mayor-council option. But having a real mayor with real authority who is the day-to-day manager of the city is boring. Sure, it has worked well in North Little Rock, Jonesboro, Van Buren, Fayetteville, Conway and many other cities around the state, but let’s be careful. The Fort Smith body politic may not transition well from a government in which no one person is responsible and accountable to a system in which there is such a person. You can’t just shock the system like that. Riding a merry-go-round horse ain’t the same as sitting atop the real thing.
Also, a boring government does not deliver the kind of website traffic produced by a government with a city administrator who has to keep at least four of the seven board members happy. That’s not good for a media outlet like The City Wire. Having a seven-board panel hitched up like a mule team but all pulling in different directions guarantees several days of great website traffic each month. What you call good government, I see as bad for business.
Another option is a merger of city and county government. The NLC says the “city-county consolidation has been the most widely attempted metropolitan reorganization model,” but are rarely approved when proposed. The Census Bureau identifies only 34 city-county consolidated governments out of a total of 3,069 county governments. It’s hard to see any downside to merging city and county government, especially when considering how Fort Smith and Sebastian County officials worked so well to move forward on building a water park.
There are national forms of government we could try at the local level. A “demarchy" is a government in which leaders are selected by “sortition” – essentially names randomly picked from an eligible pool. Those selected make decisions on policy similar to how a jury makes decisions. We could pick 12 folks, let them serve for two years, and then pick another 12.
Then there is a “kleptocracy.” That’s a form of government in which the ruling class use their position to gain wealth and power. It’s sometimes called a “mafia” style of government. Probably not a good option, but again, from the angle of driving website traffic, we at The City Wire urge you not to just knee-jerk and reject this option. We might find a benevolent Vito Corleone – but you would not want to be late with the water payment.
With western heritage such a large part of our city, an option may be a monarchy in which we are governed each year by the queen of the Old Fort Days Rodeo. This year Jessica Stamps, 21, of Tontitown, Ark., would be calling the shots.
Queen Jessica said on the rodeo website: “I would not be here without pushing myself to follow my dreams; and I will, no matter how long it takes me to get there. … I wish to thank everyone, especially my family, friends and sponsors, who has encouraged me along the way to make my dreams come true. I feel blessed to call myself Miss Rodeo Old Fort Days.”
How can you not like a dreamer? That’s tremendously more inspiring than anything we’ve heard from Vice Mayor Kevin Settle. Hell, we’d probably already like this young lady and would be calling her “Queen Jessie” – but not to her face, of course.
Also, and from the view of driving website traffic, we may consider a “kakistocracy.” That form of government results in chaos because it is one in which the least-qualified are put in charge. However, this may not necessarily count as a change in the form of government.