Saturday I was in a clothing store talking with the gentleman who, like me, was born and raised in Fort Smith. The conversation was casual, so naturally it wandered over decades and through several topics including the difference in the attitudes and economies between Fort Smith, Northwest Arkansas, Little Rock, and even the Delta.
While talking about these differences, he repeated what he hears from many of his customers, the perpetual explanation for Fort Smith’s inertia to change: “We still need a few more people to die before Fort Smith can change.”
If you are not from Fort Smith and you have heard people make this statement in your home town it may mean something different than here. When I first heard this statement decades ago it was explained to me in this context. Fort Smith’s heritage is that of a blue collar and agricultural town. It was commonly believed the business leaders and bankers purposely prevented Fort Smith from growing because they didn’t want new businesses to relocate in and around Fort Smith to compete for the existing labor force causing the cost of labor to increase and therefore decrease their own profits. This belief, accurate or inaccurate, has been circulated as a cause for Fort Smith’s slower growth than other regions in Arkansas.
A lot has changed over the last 50 years. Fort Smith is no longer a manufacturing center and most of the business leaders who or may not have conspired to suppress Fort Smith’s prosperity should be dead or at least 120 years old and now replaced by a new generation of leaders. Fort Smith needs a new theory for its lack of economic activity when compared to other parts of the state. Here is one I would like to propose for consideration.
As we all know, Fort Smith IS a great place to live. There are no crises to fret about. High quality and clean water flows without interruption to our residences. Our trash is picked up at our curb like clockwork, and our local parks beg a person to come spend their leisurely time to relax. Our schools provide our kids a great education. We have a four-year university in Fort Smith that offers students a great value for a college degree. Our streets are adequate, we have libraries conveniently located throughout the town, and soon we will have the Marshal’s Museum as an asset and an attraction for people from all over the country. We have new investment in downtown Fort Smith and Fort Chaffee will soon be the new home to a medical school and ArcBest offices.
In spite of all the wonderful traits possessed by Fort Smith, we tend to have that chronic feeling when we travel to Northwest Arkansas that a lot more is going on when compared to Fort Smith. If you read The Compass Report published in The City Wire, statistics verify this feeling is correct when it comes to the economic arena. As Fort Smith residents we excuse this difference by telling ourselves that areas do better than Fort Smith because … because Bentonville has Walmart’s corporate headquarters … because Fayetteville has the University of Arkansas … then there is Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt …
It is common knowledge that Fort Smith has a better location for business logistics. We are the third-largest market area in Arkansas, and if you’ll pardon my bias, we have above-average people compared with the rest of the state (although we love our average Northwest Arkansas brothers and sisters). So why does our prosperity lag behind other cities and towns?
My theory is that Fort Smith has below average leadership in critical areas, specifically in city governance. The cause of Fort Smith’s below average leadership is not the result of or related to a lack of people with adequate intelligence, work ethics, or leadership skills. The cause is structural.
Fort Smith is governed as a city administrator form of government. Voters elect a mayor and seven directors. The board of directors then employs a city administrator to manage the city’s day to day operations. The city administrator supervises and controls all of Fort Smith’s departments, boards, and employees. Our city administrator is effectively in charge of Fort Smith’s purse strings. He has authority to contract with businesses to supply goods and services sold to the city. In short, he is the man!
In Fort Smith, the mayor’s primary purpose is to smile at the right time. Restated more respectfully, his purpose is primarily ceremonial. Although he presides over the board of directors meetings, he has no vote on matters the board brings to a vote. He does have veto power for certain board decisions but this veto can be dismissed if the board musters five affirmative votes. In theory this administrative form of government seems very workable. But what happens in practice?
We have seven directors who are basically volunteers. They get paid but the amount is so small that I find it embarrassing. Unless a director has a real job or is wealthy, it is safe to say that if a person was elected to the position of a Fort Smith board of director, it cost them money. If you factor in the time required to talk with their constituents and to attend planning and board meetings, the opportunity cost of distracting their attention from their business, career, or job has to have a negative impact to their personal pocketbook. How many of you would pay for the opportunity to serve as a city board of director?
I appreciate the directors who do serve us and I don’t’ want to demean their civic contribution, but I don’t believe that it is likely that Fort Smith can elect seven directors during the same term that have the personality, leadership experience, and time to adequately supervise a city administrator. A part-time volunteer director who receives all their information filtered through the very city administrator they are responsible to hold accountable for his performance seems to me a defective process.
Let’s say I’m wrong and off target. If a board of directors could effectively hold a city administrator accountable, what performance indicators would be evaluated? By title and definition, the job is about efficient administration, not effective leadership and a vision for the future. We have seen times when our city administration’s concept of effectiveness was an obstacle to our economic activity and our prosperity.
I have previously stated in The City Wire that I don’t believe our city government is in the business to create jobs and business opportunities for its citizens. I do believe our city government should not be an obstacle to job growth and business opportunity. But I want to take that one step further. Fort Smith needs a leader who loves Fort Smith, who loves its people, and has authority to put the right people in the right place to make things happen. I believe we need a leader who can paint a vision that will rally Fort Smith residents to believe they have the power to change our circumstances and stand for excellence. I don’t know who this person is, but I don’t believe it will happen without a change in our form of government.
Why? I know Fort Smith has men and women with leadership skills and vision, yet no path to rise to the top to lead. The only way I know that might make that a reality would be a change in our form of government to a strong mayor form of government where our best can lead, yet be accountable to the people.
I wonder what it would take for a change in government to happen?