The Fort Smith Civil Service Commission will punt for at least another month on addressing a request from city Police Chief Nathaniel Clark to hire external applicants for upper level positions within the Fort Smith Police Department.
At a short-notice meeting on Tuesday (June 20), commission chairperson Chip Sexton recused himself from the matter, citing the threat of pending litigation against the city from law partner and fellow Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen. McCutchen had threatened a wrongful termination lawsuit on behalf of fired sanitation director Mark Schlievert, who was terminated on May 10 in an unrelated matter. He has yet to file.
Fort Smith attorney Colby Roe would ordinarily represent the Civil Service Commission in legal matters, but as “potential legal challenges” would place the Commission and the city at odds, Sexton pointed out Roe’s “duty and obligation in this case is to the city of Fort Smith.”
“Having him represent the Commission would be akin to the prosecuting attorney giving legal advice to the Judge in a criminal case,” Sexton said. The city stated it would be willing to provide outside legal representation should the Commission’s decision trigger legal challenges.
Before recusing, Sexton said his decision was “not intended to influence your (the Commission’s) decision on any issue, but simply to make sure you are informed about the law. You should make the decision that you believe to be in the best interests of the citizens of Fort Smith.”
Commissioner Bob Cooper was unanimously voted the new chairperson specific to Clark’s proposal, so any action the Commission takes on the matter would have to be in a meeting chaired by Cooper.
Since the Commission could take no action Tuesday due to the meeting’s short notice and lack of public notification, the matter will have to wait at least 10 days to adhere to media notification requirements under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Cooper has hip surgery scheduled for June 27 and will be out four weeks following the procedure. On Tuesday, he said, given the timeline, he didn’t see the Commission being able to address the issue before Aug. 1.
There has been a growing call among city directors to take action in allowing Clark to pursue external applicants. At a June 6 meeting, the Fort Smith Board of Directors passed a resolution expressing their support for Clark’s request; City Administrator Carl Geffken has also backed the proposal; and Ward 2 Director Andre Good has suggested disbanding the Civil Service Commission altogether if it does not approve the request or a compromise cannot be reached that would allow Clark to hire externally for key positions.
Furthermore, Clark was specifically urged by the city’s Board of Directors to improve the department’s longstanding diversity issues as an expectation of employment. The city of Fort Smith employs only three African-Americans, seven Hispanics, and 18 “Asian or Other” officers out of the 143 sworn officers currently on staff.