Fort Smith Directors talk water, lobbyist costs

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 62 views 

To discuss or not to discuss?

That was the question Tuesday night (Dec. 20) as Fort Smith city directors wrestled over when to talk about the latest developments in the Van Buren water true up issue.

On Dec. 14, City Administrator Ray Gosack met with Van Buren city officials to negotiate over the $834,000 that Fort Smith says Van Buren owes for water rate adjustments from 2006-09.

Gosack came out of the meeting reporting that Van Buren still intends to pay $581,000 in adjustments from 2006-08 but will not under any circumstance pay the $253,000 outstanding for 2009, because Fort Smith failed to report the true up in time.

Fort Smith City Director Philip Merry Jr. again led the Tuesday night discussion, saying he wanted to discuss the Fort Smith board’s next step immediately.

“They’ve given their response,” he said; “now we need to discuss and decide how we’re going to react.”

But only City Director George Catsavis agreed with Merry. Several other directors, led by Kevin Settle, said they wanted to wait to discuss the true up issue, putting it off until the next study session on Jan. 10.

Merry said he felt it was unacceptable to wait three weeks to discuss the true up when directors had known about Van Buren’s latest response for nearly a week. City Director Don Hutchings suggested the board hold a special study session at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 3. A regular meeting is already scheduled for that evening.

City Director Steve Tyler said the only reason directors would need to discuss the issue at a study session would be if they obtained a second legal opinion on whether an attempt to make Van Buren pay the 2009 adjustment would succeed in court.

City Attorney Jerry Canfield has told directors he doesn’t think any such legal case will succeed, though Merry has said he is unsatisfied with that assessment.

Merry moved to seek a second legal opinion, and Catsavis seconded. When Mayor Sandy Sanders asked who the second opinion would come from, Merry said that directors could suggest attorneys to Gosack and then allow him to choose.

Gosack said the second attorney would need to be “someone qualified in contract law, with no direct interest in this issue.”

Merry’s motion to get a second legal opinion passed 6-1, with Tyler voting against it. Directors will meet in a special study session at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 3 to hear the opinion.

As part of the meeting’s consent agenda, directors voted to approve an amendment to its agreement with J.C. Watts Companies, the city’s Washington, D.C. lobbyist firm. The amendment reduces Watts’ monthly fee from $8,500 to $6,000, saving the city about $30,000 a year from what was projected in the 2012 budget.

But Tyler said he thought the city should end its agreement with Watts.

“We were late coming to the party in getting a lobbyist,” he said, “and now it’s time to leave.”

Tyler said the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith recently ended its lobbying agreement with Watts, moving to a grant application model. He suggested the city should join UAFS in abandoning lobbying and instead applying for federal grants. Tyler’s argument received no further discussion, and he was the only director to vote against approving the amended agreement with Watts.

But in the officials forum, Catsavis said he wanted to revisit the Watts agreement in a future study session.

Settle said he felt Watts provided a valuable service to the city and that Fort Smith could not afford to drop its agreement with the firm. Catsavis asked Gosack whether the money spent on lobbyist services could be spent on other things, such as the television broadcasts of regular board meetings.

Gosack said while not all the money spent on Watts was in the general fund, there would be “more than enough” to pay for continuing the broadcasts.

Hutchings asked why directors were revisiting issues like the television broadcasts and the lobbyist agreement, after discussing and voting on them earlier this month.

“We’ve heard from the public on these things,” Merry responded, saying he felt citizens wanted the Board to look into these issues.

Catsavis’ request was seconded by Tyler, which was enough to ensure that directors will discuss the Watts lobbying agreement in a study session in January.

When asked after the meeting why he was bringing up the lobbying agreement again, Catsavis said, “We’re not getting our money’s worth.” He suggested the city could hire a grant writer to request funds from the federal government.

“My main goal is to keep these meetings televised,” Catsavis said, “and if we can save some money too, let’s do that.”