Questions remain after the termination of Fort Smith Sanitation Director Mark Schlievert on Wednesday (May 10). City Administrator Carl Geffken informed the city’s Board of Directors of the action via email earlier in the day, but did not give a reason for termination.
Talk Business & Politics made repeated attempts to reach out to each of the seven members of the Board of Directors and Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders as well as Geffken and the city’s Human Resources department for answers, with a 4 p.m. Thursday (May 11) deadline. Only two directors provided statements pertaining to the matter, and Geffken declined to provide a reason.
Geffken’s response to Talk Business & Politics noted: “Since the termination is a personnel issue, we have no comment regarding the reason.” He also did not respond to the question of whether Schlievert’s termination ends any investigation into the recycling issue or whether more actions and terminations could be forthcoming.
Geffken’s reference to personnel matters is only correct to a point. According to Arkansas’ Freedom of Information (FOI) Handbook, “(a)ll employee evaluation or job performance records, including preliminary notes and other materials, shall be open to public inspection only upon final administrative resolution of any suspension or termination proceeding at which the records form a basis for the decision to suspend or terminate the employee and if there is a compelling public interest in their disclosure.”
Talk Business & Politics brought this rule to Geffken’s attention immediately following his refusal to provide, but he did not respond.
The city previously provided reason for termination when then-Acting City Administrator and current Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman fired former Sanitation Director Baridi Nkokheli on Dec. 7, 2015 “for violation of personnel policies and the code of business conduct.”
Schlievert was fired one day after adjusting the city’s initial estimate that it cost $18,200 per month to run unnecessary recycling routes to $52,920 – an estimate that did not include labor costs – over a 10-month period. He had also refuted a claim by city administration that the initial estimate had come from his department.
City Directors Mike Lorenz and George Catsavis answered Talk Business & Politics’ requests for comment on Thursday morning with Lorenz stating he did support Geffken’s decision to terminate, but could not comment “on details of a personnel matter at this time.”
“This has been a very difficult and fluid situation with numerous evolving issues but I am confident that we will have a resolution to the recycling situation very soon,” Lorenz said.
Catsavis told Talk Business & Politics he did not have enough information “to make that determination about why our city administrator fired Mr. Schlievert.”
“The city administrator gave no reason for his decision, but one would assume it was over the recycling issue,” Catsavis said, adding “personnel matters can be discussed in executive session, which is a possibility given the events that have taken place.”
Catsavis continued: “I want to apologize to the people for what happened. This is terrible that this went on for so long without any notice to any of us. A lot of people spent time and money recycling items, trying to do what was right. The people are mad, to say the least, and I can’t blame them at all. The people trusted that the city was recycling their items. I do not know what will happen next with the recycling, but we are looking at other options. I’m wondering if we should even continue to recycle. Will the people even trust the city any more to do the right thing in the future? Probably not.”
Director Don Hutchings said he had “nothing to say,” while Mayor Sanders said he had knee surgery on Monday and “will be out for quite a while.”
‘FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE’
Previously, Sanders called the city’s decision to dispose of recycling materials at the landfill for a year — and counting — and then to not inform Fort Smith residents until May 1 “just a failure to communicate.”
“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 this was happening at the time,” Sanders said in public comments at the May 2 board meeting.
At the same meeting, Geffken responded to allegations of deception during the town hall portion, stating, “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.”
A day before those comments, the city revealed in a press release that recycling materials were disposed of at the landfill from November 2016-Present. Talk Business & Politics later discovered the recycling had been landfilled since late June 2016 — almost twice as long as initially reported by city officials.
Previously the city had been allowed to transfer recyclables to Green Source Recycling Center in Clarksville, Ark., at no cost beyond the cost to transport. Green Source Director Justin Sparrow said the center decided to stop taking Fort Smith’s materials because it did not have the capacity to process materials due to the manner in which it was received, while also serving its nine-county district. The center opted instead to take “higher quality materials” from neighboring Russellville, Ark., Sparrow said.
The estimated cost to run recycling routes in Fort Smith during the period under scrutiny is around $680,000, according to data provided to Talk Business & Politics by city officials. On Tuesday (May 9), the Fort Smith Sanitation Department made significant adjustments to initial numbers city administration had provided to TB&P regarding the cost of running recycling routes without recycling, more than tripling the initial figure of $182,000 to something closer to $684,636 over a 10-month period.
City leaders have also decided to continue to run recycling routes as they work to find a solution to the issue of not having a recycling center that will take its materials.
Just using the $684,636 number, that equates to a weekly estimated expense of $15,921.77 as long as the city continues to run the routes.