We don’t have time for this

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 49 views 

In less than a month, he’s reminded a black man that he serves but one “master,” and has labeled as thieves the approximately 900 employees of the city of Fort Smith. It’s a rare public meeting during which he fails to rant on and on about rampant fraud, waste and abuse in city government.

Such are the misguided ramblings we might expect from an Oscar Stilley or a Tony Alamo or a disheveled mumbler at the bus station. Unfortunately, Bill Maddox is an elected member of the Fort Smith Board of Directors who carries a shared measure of responsibility for overseeing a city of more than 80,000 people, and a city government that indirectly — if not directly, in some cases — impacts the ups and downs of other cities in the region.

He opposed selling water — a basic building block of regional socio-economic growth — to our eastern neighbors in Lavaca and Charleston. Maddox repeatedly noted with dripping disdain his unwillingness to sell water to “them people,” as if the fine folks in the communities to our east were child-molesting lepers. It took a rare public stand by the Fort Smith business community — specifically, the Manufacturing Executives Association — to overcome the asinine water-hoarding position of Maddox.

Maddox has opposed programs by the parks department based on his belief that it’s not the city’s business to entertain citizens — a belief that ignores or requires refutation of the volumes of research proving the socio-economic benefits of large and small quality of place infrastructure and programs.

At an Aug. 17 special meeting to discuss the 2010 budget, Maddox said the system allowing city employees to determine which city employees are eligible for merit and step pay increases is “out of control” and costing the city a lot of money. When asked about proof for such serious and public allegations, Maddox said he didn’t need proof. “I just know in my heart that it’s not right,” Maddox said.

The message was clear to all who heard the allegation: Director Maddox does not trust city employees, and, furthermore, implies through allegation that they steal from the city through unwarranted pay increases to their friends — especially the police and fire employees who get the largest step increases.

It was at this Aug. 17 meeting during which Maddox issued to City Administrator Dennis Kelly a mean-spirited retort that alarmed and revealed. Kelly reminded the board that past hirings and firings of department heads did not follow the city code, and he felt it his obligation to seek clarity on the ruling early in his tenure. (Kelly suggests the hire/fire power rest with the city administrator post. Five of the seven directors disagree.) Regardless of position on the issue, Kelly said it is his duty to make the board aware of potential legal problems in the processes between board and city staff. It was then that Maddox scolded Kelly for raising the issue. Maddox essentially said Kelly should not make the board aware of problems containing solutions to which Maddox might oppose. Irresponsible and unprofessional barely describe the actions of Maddox on Aug. 17.

Aug. 17 is not atypical for Maddox, however. Through his consistent words and actions, Maddox has proven he considers himself the master arbiter of what is right and wrong with city finances, city policy and the servitude status of city employees. While solid proof has yet to follow his serious postulations, it is unlikely Maddox has yet reached the apex of his unsubstantiated pontifications.

The Maddox modus operandi is to speak with 100% certainty based on considerably less than 100% of the facts. He frequently belittles city staff, often referring to female staff members as “that gal.” His off-topic and topic-rambling musings often drip with contempt for a city government of which he is charged to faithfully administer.

It is a contempt which feeds his followers.

Maddox derives most of his political support from folks who seek to minimize the role of city government except for when they want city government to maximize their self-interests. They decry government interference in the marketplace, but are the first to seek relief when a business and/or undesirable establishment desires to locate anywhere near their neighborhood. The emotional default setting for Maddox supporters is to oppose any increase in city fees or taxes, but they are the first and loudest to mock the city when it fails to adequately provide basic city services.

It’s difficult to disengage the notion that Maddox and friends want city government to fail. Failure allows the self-fulfilling prophet to say, “I told you so.” P.J. O’Rourke, a great political and cultural satirist of our day, in a diatribe against Democrats and Republicans wrote, “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” And so it seems with the Maddox movement.

Please know, Kind Reader, that this essayist does not seek a city board in constant agreement, or board members who always vote they way I see fit. In fact, I have in the past publicly praised Maddox for providing a contrarian voice on the board, and just recently defended him against calls for his resignation. Those days of praise and defense are over. I recant, and regret the extent to which Maddox was afforded benefit of doubt.

If Maddox has proof to support constant allegations of decades-long vast fraud and theft by city employees he should soon make presentation thereof. If not, he should resign. Maddox should begin offering solutions to improve socio-economic conditions in the city rather than issuing pavlovian knee-jerk opposition to proposed plans for progress. If he can’t or won’t, he should resign.

Fort Smith has in its path tremendous obstacles AND tremendous opportunities that demand the professional attention of city directors and a mayor capable of overseeing efficient AND progressive government. We can’t afford even one board member who is so obsessed with finding fault in the past and present that he or she is unable to collaborate with others and find what’s possible with our future.