Riff Raff: Camel backs and last straws

by Michael Tilley (mtilley@talkbusiness.net) 3,268 views 

A friend wanted to know if the fiasco with Fort Smith’s recycling program is the result of fraud or stupidity. Yes. In spades. And then some.

Let’s consider why the labels fraud and stupidity are by no means harsh or hyperbole, and then let’s consider why the recycling debacle is about more than lying about recycling.

In June 2016 the city of Fort Smith was no longer able to send recyclables to a facility in Clarksville. A decision was made by someone to keep running recycling trucks and send recyclables to the landfill. A decision was made by someone to not tell the public about recyclables going to the landfill. The public found out a few weeks ago that recyclables were being sent to the landfill. City Administrator Carl Geffken responded with a memo explaining what happened. A Talk Business & Politics reporter made one phone call to discover that Geffken’s memo was largely a work of fiction.

First, the disposal of recyclables in the city’s landfill began in June 2016, not November, as Geffken said. Second, Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality permitting had nothing to do with why the Clarksville facility decided to no longer accept Fort Smith recyclables, as Geffken suggested. Third, the Clarksville facility did not close its single-stream processing line, as Geffken said.

Geffken’s easily discoverable errors don’t qualify as fraud or stupidity, but it’s getting us there.

Citizens at a board meeting that followed the recycling revelation wanted to know why the city lied and continued to run the recycling trucks. One citizen alleged the city was “duplicitous” in its behavior. Geffken and Mayor Sandy Sanders bristled. Geffken said there was no intent to mislead. Sanders’ response was priceless.

“It was just a failure to communicate,” Sanders said. “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.”

A lie has two parents. One is the lie of commission. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” The other is the lie of omission. “We just didn’t let the people know that this was happening at the time.”

To be duplicitous is to be deceptive in words or action. Words or action. You, Messrs. Geffken and Sanders can say it was a mistake, but you cannot say it was not duplicitous, especially when recycling trucks continued to run. Continued to run for 10 months. Going on 11 months.

We are getting closer to fraud and stupidity. And as with most government-induced duplicity, money will get us there.

There are two issues on the money front. The first is the city is spending a lot of money so we can all pretend recyclables are not going to a landfill. The second is the city has no idea how much money it is spending to not mislead us but keep us thinking our stuff was/is being recycled.

Well, maybe the city has an idea about the money. One would hope they made a decision to keep running recycling trucks after reviewing financial pros and cons. If they conducted such a review, they have certainly made it difficult for the public to know its details. In fact, they’ve provided the media with various sets of incomplete numbers – numbers smelling of such guesstimation that we have wondered if any were worth reporting.

Let’s recap. City leaders didn’t tell residents – or the Board of Directors – about the recycling snafu until forced to do so. When forced to do so, they told a story rife with errors. Their numbers not only changed a few times, but city leaders have yet to provide a clear accounting of the true cost of pretending to recycle. Then, without explanation, the sanitation director was fired. The city remains in violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act by not providing a requested reason or documents related to his dismissal. The former sanitation director is now suing the city. More taxpayer money will be spent on legal fees.

It might be here that we’ve arrived at fraud and stupidity.

It is also here we might remember the recycling issue is just the latest in a string of deception and/or unexplainable lack of transparency by the city.

• There is the $480 million consent order negotiated without any hint of city officials wanting to be transparent with citizens about the process. (And on this note, if the city can’t manage a basic service like recycling, how do we trust they can manage a $480 million federal consent order?)

• 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 even lied about the process to name the waterpark.

• 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 said it can’t afford to build 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.

• The city has for at least six years lied to the Board and residents about why it will not do more to incorporate compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles into the city fleet of vehicles. An aggressive use of CNG vehicles beginning around 2010 – when some encouraged the city to begin the process – could be today saving the city between $500,000 and $1 million a year in reduced fuel and maintenance costs.

• Top city staff attempted to convince the Board to move quickly on a Whirlpool requested groundwater well ban near the company’s shuttered Fort Smith plant. Mayor Sanders, a former Whirlpool employee, was one of those pushing for the simple ban. Only because a few residents raised hell did we learn the truth – dangerous cancer-causing chemicals were in a large plume near the plant. Homes sitting on the plume had land values reduced by 75%. In all, this affected 55 parcels of land, including 49 residences and three commercial buildings. What’s more, the initial city staff push would have resulted in the cancer-causing chemicals to remain unknown and likely spread to a larger area. Whirlpool was eventually forced to undertake a comprehensive remediation and mitigation plan.

• We have yet to get a clear report on all the shenanigans within the Fort Smith Police Department in the past decade.

And that’s not a complete list. My work requires me to keep tabs on other Arkansas cities. While no city is perfect, by no means do we see anything within the other cities that comes close to the frequency and severity of Fort Smith missteps.

Around May of last year it was noted in this space that many positive cultural and economic things were emerging in Fort Smith thanks largely to the private sector. It was suggested that a top priority for Geffken, then new to the job, would be to return relevancy to the city. I noted: “If the city doesn’t soon get its 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.”

It’s time for a change of partners.

The sanitation director has been fired. Not sure how Geffken ever rebuilds trust with the Board and residents. The mayor might consider early retirement. A little drastic? Possibly. But something drastic is now needed. A large and growing number of reliable, responsive and responsible residents deserve a city that is not an anchor to the momentum.

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