Fort Smith Mayor’s veto of rally funding stands, hire-fire issue tabled

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 171 views 

The majority of the Fort Smith Board of Directors voted to overturn Mayor Sanders’ veto of funding the Steel Horse Motorcycle Rally at the Feb. 3 regular meeting, but they fell one short of success.

Whenever the Mayor issues a veto, a 5-2 board vote is necessary to override, and unfortunately for those seeking funds, Tuesday night’s 4-3 wasn’t enough.

The Board had previously voted on Jan. 20 to award $84,000 to Steel Horse organizers, but on Jan. 26, Sanders issued a veto stating he could not justify “the use of tax dollars for what I believe should be a private sector effort, just as Bikes, Blues and Barbecue is in Fayetteville.”

In the veto, the Mayor pointed out that 20 other non-profit organizations went through a lengthy process in competing for a share of $145,800 in general fund monies and it was questionable the city could, after that rigor as well as the 2015 budget prep, “suddenly find an additional $84,000 in the budget for a brand new start-up effort which is almost 60 percent of the budget for those organizations with performance histories.”

Sanders also wrote the ordinance set "an unhealthy precedent, which has already manifested itself in notification by another new organization informing the City that substantial funds to support that event will be requested from the City."

Sanders reiterated these points at Tuesday’s meeting while stating that he ultimately supported Steel Horse efforts and the good that the rally could do for the city, but this particular funding mechanism wasn’t something he could get behind even if the amount requested was reduced.

City Director Mike Lorenz, who voted Yes to an override, took issue with the idea that awarding Steel Horse the funds set an “unhealthy precedent,” pointing out a number of other events that have received general fund donations outside the standard process over a 10-year period. Those events, which Lorenz obtained from the city’s Finance Department included the following:
• Blues Festival, $126,000
• Festival on the Border, $37,440
• Cox Communications community event, $41,944
• Juneteenth, $18,600
• Heritage Festival, $5,874
• Area Agency on Aging, $1,078,000
• SRCA, $2,600,000
• Project Compassion, $94,000
• Fort Smith Museum of History, $200,000
• U.S. Marshals Museum, $150,000

“And not included in that,” Lorenz added, “there was $33,590 contributed to the Fort Smith Classic Golf Tournament.”

He continued: “I just want to make it clear that I don’t agree with the comment of this setting precedent. I believe the precedent was already there. This is all money provided to these outside events outside of the standard process.”

Ultimately, Lorenz and City Directors George Catsavis, Kevin Settle, and Don Hutchings, voted to override; but Directors Keith Lau, Andre Good, and Tracy Pennartz were enough to affirm.

Steel Horse organizer Dennis Snow said “it was never about the money,” but instead doing something to benefit the city and its citizens, and thanked everyone who did support the rally, noting the event was still going to happen on May 1 and 2, 2015. In comments to The City Wire, he discussed where the event stood and what it needed to move forward.

“This rally is for the people and now it will be funded by the people. We’ll do the best we can from businesses as well as individuals,” Snow said. “We already have over 200 individuals, who have agreed to devote their time. Now we need folks to open their checkbooks for a tax deductible donation.”

Also Tuesday night, the Board voted to table an ordinance redefining personnel authority of the City Administrator moving forward. In November 2013, the Board voted to empower City Administrator Ray Gosack to make hiring and firing decisions regarding department heads. The new ordinance would take that power away from Gosack and redistribute it to the Board of Directors.

Organizers for the Take Back the Fort petition effort to change Fort Smith’s form of government from City Administrator-led to Mayor-Council-led, voiced their support for the ordinance.

Jack Swink, one of the lead organizers, spoke first pointing out a “lack of accountability and transparency that this form of government has to the citizens.” Upon making comparisons to other cities of Fort Smith’s size that do not have a City Administrator form of government, Mayor Sanders asked Swink to take his seat or speak specifically to the ordinance.

As Swink continued with his prepared statement, Sanders asked a police officer to “ask Mr. Swink to have a chair,” touching off several angry comments from the audience.

Don Bales, another lead organizer of the effort, said he felt Swink’s comments were “on point,” adding that “what you (Sanders) just did is exactly what we were talking about. Because once this portion of the meeting is over, the town hall meeting won’t be televised.”

To this, Sanders said, “If you’re looking for TV time, this is not the time to do it.”

“I’m looking for transparency in government when everyone wishes to speak,” Bales said. “I’m for giving the hiring and firing authority of the city back to the citizens.”

Director Settle agreed that hiring and firing power should be given back to the Board, noting that “it’s the responsibility of us elected to be the voice of the people,” and that “we seven are elected every four years, and ultimately I think the department heads need to be responsible to the people, which is us.”

“Ultimately I disagree with the policy from 18 months ago, and want to see if the board would want to put it back as it was for the last 45 years,” he added.

Lau, who had previously voted for the ordinance 18 months ago, said he probably “wouldn’t have voted for it if I’d known it was going to be used as an opportunistic moment for whatever cause is out there.”

Lau said he would like to instead have a discussion as to whether or not the policy has been effective, noting that so far he believes it hasn’t, but that didn’t mean it would be ineffective over the long term.

The Board plans to discuss the ordinance further at the next study session and revisit in two weeks at the Feb. 17 meeting.