Character actors

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 109 views 

From the “By Their Actions People/Groups Will Show Their Character” category, the Fort Smith Board of Directors is willing to spend thousands of dollars in legal fees and risk a priceless decline of goodwill to defend a practice that allows them to conduct a portion of their business – OUR business – outside the public venue.

The Board recently won dismissal of a lawsuit related to its use of a city ordinance that allows four Board members to privately kill board agenda items approved during a public meeting. In other words, our board has legislated itself the ability to privately kill agenda items approved in public when they do not want to discuss their actions in public.

Fort Smith Municipal Code 2-31-4, states, "Any item of business may be denied a place on or removed from the agenda by notice of four (4) directors to the city clerk prior to the date of the meeting of the proposed consideration. The city clerk shall immediately notify the city administrator, the mayor, the directors and other interested persons of such action.”

We first documented our concerns with this mess in this June editorial.

The cost of the lawsuit, including the lost time and productivity of city staff who had to prepare for and attend the court hearing, could have been avoided if Board or city leadership would have rejected an either/or proposition that is really a false choice. The false choice is that the only way to remove a board agenda item approved in a public format is to use the aforementioned Code 2-31-4. The code could just as easily state: "Any item of business may be denied a place on or removed from the agenda by notice of four (4) directors during the same meeting in which the agenda item was approved.”

See what we did there? We changed one word in the following two sentences that speak to the character of a governing body.
Sentence 1: Agenda approval is made in public and may be removed in private.
Sentence 2: Agenda approval is made in public and may be removed in public.

The only difference in the sentences are the words “private” and “public.” In our book, that’s a huge difference.

Director and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle has said that allowing two directors to approve a board agenda item without the ability to privately remove said item would lead to inefficiency. Settle, in this belief, tells us much about his preference between comfortable efficiency and what can be uncomfortable transparency. The easy way out is the best way out, right?

After speaking with a few directors, we’ve learned that this private preference is borne of a desire to avoid embarrassing each other. Or that in explaining opposition to an agenda item something is said that is misinterpreted by the media. Or it may be that the timing is not right for a certain action, but in opposing the action for agenda placement a Director is forced to show their “cards” with respect to political maneuvering.

Such excuses are as shallow as they are tired and insulting. Such reasoning suggests that a Director knows what is best for the city, but us peasants wouldn’t understand. Such excuses are borne of insecurity from an uncertainty of core beliefs; lack of awareness that conducting the public’s business may not always be rainbows and unicorns; and/or the nefarious desire to control the environment for purposes that place political gain above public service. Again, actions relate to character.

We are unable to put a price on the loss of citizen trust related to the curious and unexplained actions by a majority of Board members who use an ordinance to avoid public conversations about the public’s business. But in a few weeks we may learn what the city’s law firm charged the taxpayers for defending Fort Smith Municipal Code 2-31-4.

We will then know a true cost in this matter of the difference between “public” and private,” and we will have an opening price – or additional price – for the impairment of goodwill between the Board and those of us who possess the quaint notion that the public’s business should be the public’s business.