Fort Smith Board discusses governance policies, possible pay raises

by The City Wire staff ( 3 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors Tuesday afternoon (Aug. 26) revisited a Board governance policy that had previously died when no members of the Board made a motion for passage at a June 3 meeting.

City Director Keith Lau started discussion of the governance policy by asking that it be called a set of "best practices" versus a policy. City Director Mike Lorenz had said the word "policy" sounded too much like it would be law, supporting Lau's desire to change the way the proposed document was to be known.

"I don't think any of us were trying to create a law, we were trying to create something we could present to the citizens and say, 'Hey, this is how we operate.' We know how each other are supposed to operate and then let the citizens know how we operate for an increased trust factor."

City Director Philip Merry was quick to remind his fellow Board members that the intent of policy was not to create a document detailing what was allowed and not allowed of city directors but instead was supposed to serve as an educational tool for new Board members.

"Director (Pam) Weber offered up an orientation for a new member and it's gone way beyond that," he said, adding that the Board should be managed by the citizens instead of an list of dos and don'ts.

City Director André Good specifically called out a section of the governance manual that says a Board member must notify the administration and Board if he or she intends to speak with a plaintiff pursuing legal action against the city of Fort Smith.

"If these are the same people that elected us, I find it really difficult to say, 'No, I'm not allowed to talk to you.' I do want to hear their points of view," he said.

City Administrator Ray Gosack said the policy that is again up for consideration does not prohibit a Board member's ability to talk openly with citizens, namely those who may be pursuing litigation against the city.

"What this says is if you do that, you have to disclose it to the rest of the Board," he said. "Since there's litigation involved, so everyone is aware."

Gosack said the purpose of the disclosure was to make the Board aware and said it would be wise for city directors to avoid contact with plaintiffs and attorneys since it could pose a danger to the city's ability to possibly win a case in court.

"Then when the city attorney cross examines you, he's going to have to cross examine you as a hostile witness," he said. "How does that play when the city attorney's having to treat a Board member as a hostile witness?"

Gosack said the proposed policy was also about simplifying and streamlining the message being conveyed by the city.

"I think when you're involved with litigation as an organization, you need to speak with one voice. We don't need eight voices speaking for the organization."

The Board ultimately decided at the request of Lau to remove a section that would have allowed for censures of individual Board members, as well as to rename the document as a "best practices" document. It will come up for a vote on Sept. 2.

In other business, the Board reviewed departmental service objectives for 2015, where it was revealed by Gosack that the city appears to be in the early stages of losing employees to the private sector.

The revelation came about after Merry mentioned wanting to provide some sort of raise for city employees, who have only had one raise in about the last four or five years.

Gosack noted during the discussion that it was vital to make sure employees were taken care of due to the risk of losing them to the private sector.

"The first concern is making sure we're fairly compensating employees, but the other concern too is to make sure we don't lose employees to other organizations. We're starting to see some of the early signs of that leakage going on where people are leaving for jobs that pay more. Still in the same career field, but they're going to other places that pay a little better than we do."

Gosack said the city has typically stayed in the mid-range of salaries compared to other regional cities of similar size. But in recent years, Fort Smith has started to drop, he said, necessitating the need to improve salaries.

Among the department to see some of the most turnover is the police department, Gosack said, though other departments are starting to see more leakage as well.

But with the budget process just beginning, it remains to be seen whether the city will be able to afford raises during the next fiscal year, though City Director Kara Bushkuhl said her department would work on the issue.