Racial remarks again part of Fort Smith board of directors meeting (Updated)

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 140 views 

City Director Bill Maddox finds himself at the center of another racial controversy less than five weeks after using the word “master” in a conversation with a black Fort Smith department head.

At the Aug. 4 meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors, there was a discussion about the Fort Smith Department of Sanitation possibly providing collection and recycling service to Van Buren residents. It was during this discussion that City Director Bill Maddox (white) reminded Fort Smith Department of Sanitation Director Baridi Nkokheli (black) that he served one “master.”

What ensued was a short storm of protest, but Maddox apologized to Nkokheli and City City Director Andre Good, the only black serving on the city board.

But on Tuesday (Sept. 8), Maddox distributed to the board of directors and city staff an e-mail from a city resident who complained about his trash pick-up service from the Fort Smith Department of Sanitation (DOS). The Tuesday session was part of a discussion about whether the residential trash service would reside wholly under the DOS, or with Altes Sanitation retaining its roughly 18% of the trash service when its franchise agreement with the city expires in July 2010.

However, the letter distributed by Maddox from the city resident included the following comments from the city resident about the word “master” and about slavery: “You used the term ‘master’ in a manner that has been correct English for hundreds of years and if blacks take umbrage at it, they are revealing their ignorance of the language. Everyone who works for a salary or wage has a master! All salary/wage earners are modern-day slaves to the all mighty dollar (sic), so the blacks need to grow up and enter the 21st Century. I, for one, have never owned a slave nor do I want one. They are too expensive to maintain and machines do the job faster and better than they would.”

Again, the words were NOT that of Maddox, but of the resident who e-mailed Maddox.

Maddox was asked by about the necessity to use the letter containing the racial remarks. Specifically, The City Wire noted that “it could appear that using the e-mail indicates your acceptance of the remarks, or, at a minimum, that the citizen’s remarks about sanitation were more important than his comments on race.”

In a phone interview, Maddox responded: “I was not raised up that way (racist). I didn’t go to school with them (blacks) until college. I served in the Army with them, and absolutely no ill feelings toward them. … I hear people talk about the blacks in a derogatory way and I know white people and people of just about any color who are just as bad, you know, whatever they may say. So I do not have that feeling at all about the colored people, as I grew up knowing them,  or with the blacks or Afro-Americans, or whatever they want to be called today.”

Maddox said he talked to Director Good after the Tuesday session, and said his beliefs on race were not the same as those in the e-mail from the city resident.

“I told him that, you know, I hesitated about bringing that letter to them, but I didn’t bring it for the racial comments nor did I bring it for the last paragraph,” Maddox explained. “The man had just written a long e-mail explaining his problem with the city sanitation department and I thought the other directors needed to see what his comments were about the sanitation department. In a nutshell that is it. There was no malice on my part. … I did not have any other e-mails concerning the issue other than three e-mails from anti-Altes people.”

Updated info: This is a statement received by The City Wire from Bill Maddox:
My distribution  of the e-mail was with the writers approval. I thought it was important that since I am on the side of Altes in the City’s desire to take over the Altes customers in the south part of Fort Smith that a Fort Smith sanitation customers viewpoint be known. The e-mail I gave out was one of two e-mails in opposition to the proposed take over of the Altes customers by the City of Fort Smith. I realized there were comments in the letter that may be offensive to some but decided that the message about the Fort Smith sanitation service was important for the other Directors to see. The entire letter should be read. As a comparison to the e-mails I received in support of Altes I received 4 e-mails in opposition to the continuation of the Altes contract. One of those e-mails was an apparent clone of another. As I stated at the meeting I did not agree with all statements made in the subject e-mail I received. I believe strongly in the free enterprise system and I wholly agree that the City should not take over the customers of Altes sanitation.

When asked about the decision by Maddox to present the e-mail at a public meeting, City Director Don Hutchings said he would not have used such an e-mail at a public meeting.

“That’s one of those e-mails you delete and move on,” Hutchings said.

Director Good was asked of his opinion of the letter: He issued this statement to The City Wire:
The remark that Mr. Nkokheli answers to “one master” was  both inappropriate and offensive just as was the email Director Maddox used at todays study session, not just to African-Americans, but to Fort Smithians of all persuasions.

The remark from the email handed out at todays study session brings to mind an ugly chapter in our history, slavery, and its legacy, including racial oppression, "Jim Crow" segregation, and lingering racism.

The fact that Director Maddox made an unfortunate remark — one that even he regrets — does not make him a racist. Also, Director Maddox did not write the email he referenced at todays study session. And the fact that I spoke out should not secure my place in the "angry black man" category.

This unfortunate incident creates an opportunity for us to take a serious look at how we "do diversity" in this community. As leaders, we set the tone in our community. We are therefore obligated to educate ourselves so that we provide examples of diversity leadership at its best.

We need to commit ourselves, as City leaders, to engage in ongoing diversity education, and to offer opportunities for periodic dialogue with our citizens on their diversity-related concerns. Now is the time for us to take diversity seriously, to walk the talk

Today’s conversation should have been about making a choice as who to use for a portion of the City of Fort Smith’s residents sanitation collection. To me, the email and part of the meeting turned into something that somehow portrayed the whole Sanitation Department as neglectful and, conveniently, its African-American Director as wholly
to blame. Why, in context, might one suspect that race matters? It’s worth pondering, isn’t it?

At this point, we need to focus on issues to move this City forward and continue to be progressive and address our citizens concerns related to their sanitation service. This is something that is not constructive or moving us any closer as City to where we want to be and should be.