While City of Fort Smith Board of Directors candidates at the Monday (June 11) League of Women Voters Candidate Forum did not agree entirely on what the top issues the city faces in 2013 will be, all seven running in Wards 1, 3, and 4, feel there is a trust deficiency throughout the city.
Between the community and the city government. Between city directors and the municipal department heads. Even among the city directors themselves.
“It’s time for Fort Smith to wake up, stand up, and make progress,” said Ward 4 challenger John Cooley. “We can’t do it the way it is now with not enough trust existing between the community and the city government.”
Ward 1 candidate Keith D. Lau added: “When the directors are sitting on top of a $220 million budget, they can’t micromanage each individual thing.”
Ward 3 challenger Mike Lorenz agreed: “We need to trust our department heads to make the best decisions.”
The trust talk, which consumed a significant portion of the presentation, stemmed from a single question to Ward 4 City Director George Catsavis: How will you make decisions when the wants and the needs of your ward are a vocal minority that affect others in the city?
Catsavis voted to end automated refuse collection at the June 5 board meeting in spite of two out of three city surveys showing a preference for the program and a satisfaction rate of 74.5% in areas where the conversions had already been made.
“Automated is more efficient, no doubt about it,” Catsavis said, adding that he voted as he did because the citizens of Park Hill East, who initiated the debate that ultimately ended the automated program, “had legitimate complaints.”
Catsavis continued: “I supported the alley pickup for the residents of Park Hill because I feel they have a legitimate complaint with the logistical or terrain issues they have. A lot of that area is senior citizens, and they are in these motorized wheelchairs, and they have issues getting their trash out.”
Cooley, Catsavis’ opponent, disagreed.
“I’m all for automation, and while I certainly understand there are situations where people have constraints, those are issues that need to be addressed by the department of sanitation through the troubleshooting program that is already in place.”
Lau and Lorenz echoed Cooley’s thoughts, while Lorenz’s opponent Matthew Garner was joined by Ken Pevehouse in aligning closer to Catsavis’ viewpoint, though each advised that automation for alleyway pickups should be further examined.
“From my perspective, maybe I should listen to my ward. I have automated, but maybe we could look at a hybrid system. There has to be a way to compromise so these aren’t such polarizing issues. There has to be other solutions besides, ‘You think this way, I think this way, and we’ll never get together,’” Garner said.
For Lau and Pevehouse, the issue is about more than trash collection.
“The issue at the core of everything we’re looking at is leadership,” Lau said. “We need to put people in place, who have the ability to say, ‘Yeah, I’m sorry this is inconvenient for you as an individual or neighborhood, but it benefits the whole.’”
Pevehouse said, “It’s really more about how the decisions are made,” and was against blanket automated conversion to alleyways because “you would be taking something away from them (homeowners).”
“These people purchased their homes knowing they had alley pickup. What I feel like we need to do is work for a way to accomplish automated in the alleys,” Pevehouse added.
Ward 1 candidate Liz Berry Armstrong sympathized with homes affected by non-automated collection, though she said that “if it goes to a vote, I would abide by the results and respect the voters on that,” referring to current efforts from Fort Smith citizen Joel Culberson to finalize an initiative for citywide automated collection in November.
All of the candidates consider job growth an important issue for 2013, though they were divided on the best way to accomplish the goal.
For Cooley and Lorenz, riverfront development will be the main focal point, while Garner and Armstrong look to focus efforts on Interstate 49 development.
Catsavis noted that Fort Smith “has river, rail, and roads,” but wishes to focus a possible second term on the question of why the city isn’t growing.
“I don’t know if it’s an internal problem or what,” he added, noting that downtown development would be a top priority.
“I-49, that’s federal money, so we really don’t have all that much control over it. For me, I’d like to see a casino (downtown), because really, it’s already here just a few miles away (in Pocola),” Catsavis said.
Pevehouse believes Fort Smith “has everything in place, but we need to market ourselves better.”
Lau joined Garner and Armstrong in emphasizing I-49, stating that “demand is going to drive what is on the Riverfront.”
Lau continued: “We need more than service jobs. We need basic economic growth, and that means attracting companies that export their services outside the city of Fort Smith. That’s what stimulates real economic growth. We need I-49, and if that means more public and private partnerships, then that’s what we should do. A good example are the ball field additions. We need to be diligent when we put these partnerships together and have a plan in place to ensure we don’t get in to another situation like with the Convention Center.”