Fallout from the city of Fort Smith’s decision to landfill close to 1,500 tons of curbside recyclables continued to play out during the abbreviated regular meeting and in the town hall afterward on Tuesday night (May 2) from the Fort Smith Public Schools Service Center.
City Administrator Carl Geffken acknowledged the city should have done a better job of communicating with its citizens that recycling materials were being intermingled with trash collections at the Fort Smith Landfill since November 2016 when a third-party collector in Clarksville stopped taking the city’s materials.
Speakers at the town hall described themselves as “shocked,” “angry,” and “disappointed” over the decision.
Lacey Jennen, a member of the Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Commission, said she was “saddened and really puzzled by the fact I had to find out about this on Facebook, and had I not taken the initiative myself to take time out of my day to call a director, I would not have known about it.”
Jennen described her family as “avid” recyclers. “Our household does its due diligence to do that, from toilet paper rolls to tags on clothing. Changing bottles. A family of five, we have milk jugs galore. To hear that my efforts of doing that — being intentional about putting those items in their special little bin that I roll out to the curb every week that I believe to go to the place where they’re intended to — only to find it was being put with the rest of the garbage was really upsetting to me.”
More upsetting, however, was “the fact that we didn’t know about it.”
“Transparency and information goes a long way, and I think my reaction would have been a little bit different if we had received a notification about it explaining: ‘Unforeseen circumstances, here’s what we’re doing to try and remedy and find a solution for this, please remember to maintain your recycling practices that we don’t want to get out of the habit of,'” Jennen said.
Jennen accepted there was likely no “deception or misleading intent,” but said, “you have to understand why it feels that way a little bit.”
“It’s kind of like sticking your mail in the mailbox. You don’t see it going to its destination, but you trust that your mailman is taking it to where it’s supposed to go. And our intended bin was not going where it was supposed to go.”
Fort Smith resident Robbie Wilson started with a more pointed takedown of the city’s decision, telling Geffken and six of the seven Board members — Director Mike Lorenz was absent — “I’ve never been so disappointed in my local government than I am today.”
“This deception about recycling is just a bridge too far in my view,” Wilson said. “A minute ago, you mentioned there was no conspiracy or active deception, but trucks were still rolling, picking up recycling as if it was business as usual. How in your opinion is that not an act of deception?”
Geffken answered that the city’s actions “were not duplicitous.”
“We were not trying to say we’re going to pull one over, so to say you’re doing something mean-spirited or duplicitous means this person is a bad person, and that is not in any way what happened here. You can say it was a mistake, but you cannot say it was duplicitous,” Geffken said.
Wilson’s response echoed Jennen’s. “I think what is troubling me is that this was not made public.” Something Geffken acknowledged was “a very valid point.”
“By not making it public and then carrying on as if there was nothing wrong at all is frankly unacceptable. Is this how we’re going to continue to do business moving forward?” Wilson said.
Geffken reaffirmed the city’s action was not duplicitous, and explained that as work was being done to find a solution to the loss of the Clarksville center, “it wasn’t that we were just saying, ‘Just throw it in the landfill.'”
“We were looking at options that were cost neutral to the residents, who we’ve also heard from a lot regarding the impact of the sewer rates. So yes, you can say, and it would be very valid, that we should have provided notification and that time did get away, but we are actively and are still continuing to find that way where we can process the recycling at a zero net cost to the citizens of Fort Smith,” Geffken said.
Expanding later on the sewer rate reference, Geffken noted that protecting the $13.28 trash collection fee, which includes recycling at no added cost, is a priority related to the consent decree as well.
“There are secondary tertiary effects to the increase if we increase the sanitation bill, and that’s on the same bill as water and wastewater. Then, the federal government has every reason to come back and say, ‘Well if you can raise $6 on your sanitation bill, why can’t you pay another $6 for sewer, and why do we need to amend the consent decree? So that’s the confines in which we were operating. I don’t want to raise that. The Board doesn’t want to raise that. So that’s why, when we move forward, we try to do so in as cost efficient of a manner as possible,” Geffken said, adding that “we made the mistake of lack of communication, that’s what it comes down to.”
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders echoed that assessment, stating there was “no intent to hide the truth.”
“It was just a failure to communicate,” Sanders said. “In the meantime, the city staff has been searching to find that recycling solution at a favorable cost to us. There was no intent to mislead. Trash was still picked up. Recyclable wasn’t separated because there was no place for it to go. It was not done to hide anything from the citizens, but it gave us time to go ahead and try to find a solution to the problem. We just didn’t let the people know that this was happening at the time.”
Fort Smith Director Keith Lau confirmed to Talk Business & Politics that he and other board members did not find out about the city’s decision until Monday and called it a “PR nightmare,” but said he did not believe the failure to notify was intentional.
The Fort Smith Sanitation Department collected 118,320 tons from November to the present. From that number, Geffken said, 1,478 tons were recyclables (about 1.25%). There are approximately 30,000 households in the city of Fort Smith.