Fort Smith Board discusses governance policy, city budget process

by The City Wire staff ( 2 views 

Fort Smith city directors spent much of a noon Board of Directors study session debating and discussing what they would like to see a board governance policy. The idea of a board governance policy was originally proposed by City Director Pam Weber during a Board retreat in 2013.

According to City Administrator Ray Gosack, the adoption of a "board governance policy provides for transparent, responsive, and accountable representation of the public," he said in a memo to the Board. "It embodies the principles and procedures that help the board and staff function effectively."

But the proposed policy, which in its draft form is 17 pages long, went too far according to Weber and some other directors who expressed interest in having a more general governance policy that would introduce new city directors to their work on the Board rather than detailing with precision what they are allowed and not allowed to do as city directors.

City Director André Good said he felt the proposed policy drafted by city staff was far too strict.

"Some of these restrictions, they seem to be … some of these policies seem to be pretty restrictive in what we can and what we cannot do, especially where on the mandate to work professionally, work with integrity and work with the best interest of our citizens."

He pointed specifically to section 7.1 on page seven of the document, which deals with structured contact between the Board and the community, as well as 12.1 on page 10, which says all requests for a city representative at "ceremonial events will be handled by the Mayor's office."

Good said the language made it appear as though all requests for the directors to appear at any community function would have to go through the Mayor instead of just being allowed to determine their own schedule. Mayor Sandy Sanders said he viewed the verbiage as dealing more with individuals who will represent the city at conventions and other events.

With more discussion, Weber spoke up and explained what it was that she wanted in her request for a governance policy.

"What I was really wanting was something just for a new board member, (a brochure) or a pamphlet that when you got on the Board you could have something you could refer to — these are my responsibilities, these are my duties, this is who I contact with questions. It was more of that type of thing. This feels a bit more restrictive than we talked about in the retreat."

City Director Keith Lau said he didn't understand why other directors were troubled by the document, adding that as a policy position it was something he and other Board members could choose to disregard since it was not an ordinance or law, adding that a detailed document such as the draft would allow him to know in much greater detail what his role as a director was rather than bugging Gosack and administrative staff with questions as they came up.

After much discussion, the Board asked Gosack to prepare a shorter document no more than four pages that the Board could compare with the longer document at its May brainstorming session. Suggestions from Board members for the document will be submitted to Gosack no later than March 31.

In other business, Finance Director Kara Bushkuhl addressed the method for balancing the city's budget at the request of the Board following several contentious budget meetings during the latter part of 2013, which saw Lau questioning the city's ability to proclaim a balanced budget when using unused expenses from the previous year to balance the next year's budget.

"The city has allocated current revenues plus the prior year balance in each operating fund as a means for providing total resources available for appropriation in each fund," she wrote in a memo to the Board. "This is a usual practice in municipal budgeting. However, some municipalities restrict appropriations to the level of the current year revenues and do not include the prior year balance as a resource. This is termed as a structural balance."

As a result of not using the funds, she said the unused balances "would remain in (their) respective fund and are normally used for one-time expenditures or capital improvements if they exceed the reserve requirement."

She said moving to the structural balance method could result in less conservative revenue estimates and could lead departments to spend 100% of their appropriations regardless of need. She said it could also result in lost personnel during economic downturns at times when the public may seek additional services.

No action was taken on whether to change budgeting methods. The discussion was somewhat limited following the lengthy discussion of the Board governance policy. Bushkuhl is scheduled to address the Board during another study session in April, when the topic is likely to be discussed in greater detail.