A planned executive session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors to discuss removal of attorney Chip Sexton from the city’s Civil Service Commission for potential conflict of interest will move forward.
According to city clerk Sherri Gard, Director George Catsavis requested removal and was joined in the effort by Director Don Hutchings. Vice-Mayor Kevin Settle could not be reached, but the remaining four directors — Andre Good, Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz, and Tracy Pennartz agreed to move forward with discussion.
The issue stems from a recently filed lawsuit against the city by Fort Smith attorney and Sexton’s law partner Joey McCutchen. The case, entitled “Bruce Wade vs. The City of Fort Smith,” argues the city and Board of Directors violated Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law when discussing abolishment of the commission over an email thread.
On Thursday night (July 6), Catsavis told Talk Business & Politics he asked for removal because “Mr. Sexton has commented that an executive session may not be the correct way to address the issue, so I would like to hear from our attorney if it is acceptable to proceed or not.”
Catsavis emphasized the need for “a legal opinion” from the city’s representation. “Personally, I do not see a conflict with this issue. Mr. Sexton has not filed a lawsuit against the city, so are we assuming guilt by association, so to speak? I believe the people would like to see the city move forward addressing the sewer issue and the recycling fiasco than worrying about something like this.”
Tensions have been high between city government and the CSC after the commission refused to consider Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark’s request for the option to hire senior-level positions from outside the police department. Director Good has publicly called for the abolishment of the CSC if it refuses to honor Clark’s request.
The complaint against the city alleges Good sent an email to City Administrator Carl Geffken on May 23 to complain about the commission decision against Chief Clark’s request. Good noted that progress “will not happen as long as this closed system persists.” McCutchen asks in the complaint that the court stop city officials from “conducting public business through a series of emails without providing the public with notice of the emails and giving the public the opportunity to provide input in the emails.”
Traditionally, the department has promoted from within, but the Board’s charge to improve diversity would mean Clark could only position minority new-hires at the bottom of the employment hierarchy regardless of qualifications. Clark has argued it would effectively handcuff him from attracting highly qualified applicants while improving diversity within the department. The city employs only three African-Americans, seven Hispanics, and 18 “Asian or Other” officers out of the 143 sworn officers on staff.
At a meeting on June 20, Sexton recused himself from matters pertaining to Clark’s request. 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 due to the meeting’s short notice and lack of public notification, the matter would have to wait at least 10 days to adhere to media notification requirements under the Arkansas FOIA law. Cooper had hip surgery scheduled for June 27 and is out for the next four weeks. Given the timeline, he did not see the Commission being able to address the issue before Aug. 1. Prior to the June 20 meeting, the Commission had not allowed a formal vote on Clark’s request, instead opting to let it die for lack of motions.
Link here for a lengthy PDF copy of Bruce Wade vs. The City of Fort Smith filing.