After more than 30 minutes of discussion at their regular meeting, the Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (Aug. 20) reversed a city policy in place more than 45 years and gave the city administrator position the hire-fire authority over department heads.
The only positions not under the city administrator authority are the internal auditor and district court clerk. The Fort Smith police chief and fire chief fall under the city administrators new authority.
Three Fort Smith residents rose to speak against the ordinance. David Harris said the policy has worked for decades and he did not see a problem that required a change. He told Board members they should maintain their oversight over key city personnel.
“You are the only link to the people of Fort Smith,” Harris said. “I don’t think the system is broken. I don’t think you need to fix it.”
Doug Skokos argued that changing the ordinance grants too much power to the city administrator. He said that power will put pressure on the city administrator to grant favors, adding that it will create a “more efficient way to stick their (favor-seekers) hands in the cookie jar.”
City Directors Andre Good, Mike Lorenz, Philip Merry Jr., and Pam Weber spoke at length about the need to change the rule and give the city administrator hire-fire authority. Lorenz said if the city administrator has the responsibility to manage, the position “should have the authority.”
Weber said she supported the change, but said it will make “more difficult” the job of City Administrator Ray Gosack. Good challenged those who said if the system isn’t broke to not fix it. He said just because something isn’t broken “doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be better.”
Good opposed granting the city administrator hire-fire authority in 2009 when it was proposed by then-City Administrator Dennis Kelly. So why the change of heart?
“That’s pretty much what it was, a change of heart,” Good said after Tuesday’s vote, adding that he feels bad for not learning more about employment law when the issue was considered in 2009.
The issue has been a sensitive political topic following an early 2008 attempt by then-City Administrator Randy Reed to fire Fort Smith Police Chief Kevin Lindsey. The resulting controversy resulted in a quasi-demonstration at a city board meeting, Reed’s resignation and the resignation of City Director Velvet Medlock. Lindsey retained his job and remains the city’s top police officer.
Kelly first publicly presented his request to shift the hire/fire authority to the city administrator during a May 12, 2009, study session. Then-Fort Smith Mayor Ray Baker strongly opposed the attempt, even calling Kelly’s idea “petty stuff.”
‘MAJORITY OF SEVEN’
City Director and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle opposed changing the policy. He said Tuesday night those who voted to change the form of government in 1967 had good reasons to not put too much power in the hands of one person. Settle also opposed Kelly’s attempt to change the hire-fire authority.
A “majority of seven should have the responsibility, and not the one,” Settle said in reading from prepared remarks.
Eventually, a majority of seven gave the responsibility to the one. City Director Keith Lau moved that the ordinance be approved, and Good seconded. Voting for the ordinance were Directors Good, Lau, Lorenz, Merry and Weber. Directors Settle and George Catsavis voted against the ordinance.