Carl Geffken, who recently arrived in Fort Smith to be the city’s top boss, may face a bigger chore than filling key management vacancies, or abiding by an estimated $480 million cram-down from the feds to fix the city’s sewer system.
We might assume he realizes the challenges ahead, but that assumption would border on the insane because many of us here for years are not fully aware of challenges within the city.
And please know the intent of this essay is not to disparage or ridicule the city. It is an attempt to quantify what I see and hear as a growing perception about our city government. The point of this note, Kind Reader, is relevancy. Hold that thought for a second and allow me to build back to the point.
For the first time in many years, there is a positive buzz in the city. Many cultural and economic events are happening, from downtown Fort Smith to Chaffee Crossing. I’ve observed our socio-economic development more than 20 years, and for the first time am more optimistic than not – far more optimistic than not.
The city of Fort Smith has at best had a sideline role in the recent developments; basic infrastructure support, issuing permits, reviewing plans, providing police and fire support – things a city is supposed to do. Some argue that is all a city should do. Others suggest such basic help may be all the city can do.
Driving the relevancy question is several years of city dysfunction, miscues, missteps or whatever term you deem appropriate. There is the $480 million consent order that was negotiated without any hint of city government wanting to be transparent with citizens about the process. The unexplained water charges several years ago with the city of Van Buren remain unexplained. There was the $8 million waterpark that cost $12 million, and included a scene in which city staff told a consultant to not be honest with the board about true costs. The city builds turn lights and a turn lane for said waterpark that is open five months of the year, but has over two decades not moved to build road and signage improvements for a road in south Fort Smith that serves at least six large companies that likely employ year-round more than 2,000 people. We have a police department with leadership so disinterested in diversity that it doesn’t even give lip service to the issue. The city has had the same legal representation for more than 40 years, but city leadership objects to any comprehensive review of that relationship. While encouraging others to keep their tourism dollars local, the city’s tourism wing spends money outside the city on a new website and marketing message for the website. On payments for police and fire pensions, the city only partially stopped kicking the can down the road.
Let’s stop there lest anyone think we are piling on.
A now common refrain from the private sector is that they have decided to move ahead without partnering with the city. They will hook their own mule to the plow. As a result, several key developments, all without a single point of origin, have come together in the city (and region) to build this momentum. Admittedly my evidence is anecdotal, but it grows overwhelmingly so.
“Maybe it’s time for the city to just stay out of the way, or do no harm, as they say in the medical profession,” a prominent business leader recently said.
Others express a sincere concern the city will do something – even if unintentional – that would be a drag on the positive momentum generated by the private sector. In just a few years, we’ve moved from a debate about the form of city government best suited to foster socio-economic development to a discussion about whether we want (or need) city government help in such development.
And therein lies City Administrator Geffken’s challenge. What, if anything, may he do to be relevant? Should he seek such relevancy for the city, or simply work to ensure the figurative trains run on time? Can a business community and citizenry that has largely pushed beyond the status quo be governed by a city unwilling to unwind its status quo regime? Will the Fort Smith Board of Directors allow a city administrator to move the city toward relevancy? The Mayor and seven directors individually say they want progress, but collectively a muted message emerges.
There is no joy on my part in proffering this assessment. It would seem preferable to have a city government capable of being a positive collaborator; of possessing leadership able to create organizational flexibility responsive to dynamic changes that not only supports our momentum but is an accelerant. There are examples around the country of city governments finding innovative ways to magnify private sector investments. It can happen. We should want it to happen here.
If the city doesn’t soon get it’s act together in broad terms of trust, transparency and judgment, it may be difficult for Geffken – or anyone else – to convince those wanting to build on the recent momentum that the city can be a reliable, responsive and responsible change-agent partner.