Funding for a 35-mile multi-use trail system in Fort Smith wasn’t rejected because voters don’t like trails. It wasn’t about the trails. Never was. It was about trust. It was about transparency. It was about neither of those two things being commonly associated with city government.
The facts are these. Just a skooch over 80% of those who voted in the special election approved renewal of a 1% sales tax for funding of roads, bridges and associated drainage. 80.16%. But 55.69% of that same group voting for a more than $200 million, 10-year tax package rejected directing just $10 million of that over 10 years to help build and maintain trails.
Fort Smith folks are generous and easy going. When they step up to help they typically go above and beyond. They did it after the 1996 tornado. The stories of how folks in the area stepped up to help Hurricane Katrina victims would pack a Ken Burns documentary. The region stepped up to tax itself to ensure the transition of a two-year college into a four-year university. I just witnessed firsthand how the community stepped up to ensure a successful motorcycle rally.
But these same folks can cut it off. It doesn’t take much to go from gracious support to “go f%$# yourself.” There was a lot of the latter in this recent special election. Many of the same crowd who in a 2012 special election supported by a wide margin a waterpark were having none of a plan for trail funding.
It was somewhere around the tenth conversation with a typically progressive Fort Smithian that I realized the trail funding vote was in trouble. The consensus of those conversations was this: I want trails and we really need a trail system to help this city attract the types of workers and companies that will grow the economy. But I’m done with giving the city of Fort Smith my benefit of the doubt.
And the folks would then rattle off a litany of reasons why they no longer trust city government. Lack of disclosure over water “true ups” with Van Buren. Unwillingness of the Fort Smith Board to review legal fees. Whatever it was that happened with a waterpark cost that went from $8 million to around $12 million almost overnight. This exquisite bullshit about negotiations over Clean Water Act violations with the federal government being walled off from public view. The resulting $480 million estimated cost to comply with federal orders to clean up our water that resulted from negotiations we just classified as being conducted via the cover of exquisite bullshit. We could go on, but the point is that the recent vote was about trust and transparency and not trails.
Some of those who supported the trails funding plan have complained about the low voter turnout and/or those who vocally opposed the plan. Neither had anything to do with the trail funding rejection. Turnout could have doubled the historical average and there could have been no opposition and the funding would have failed. To wit. The group supporting the effort raised more than $65,000 and the group opposing the plan raised less than $3,000. One could have spent $165,000 on the effort and it wouldn’t have helped. You can’t close the gap on trust and transparency with money.
Having key city officials lead the trail tax funding effort also was an odd decision. It was a decision that seemed politically tone deaf. But that’s somewhat off the point.
Here’s the bottom line. Progressive business and civic leaders in the community can’t just show up when they manage to get something on the ballot. They’ve got to do the time. It’s like football. You don’t get to put on the uniform and play under the lights if you haven’t suffered through the long hot days in the weight room or under the August sun for two-a-days. I’ll address this concept more in a future essay.
The simple point of this short note is that we if we want trail funding and other progressive developments that will push our city forward, we will need to get real about the quality of our city government. Or, as Jack Nicholson’s “Joker’ said in the original “Batman” movie: “What this town needs is an enema!”
Business and other leaders will need to set aside their discomfort at directly challenging what passes for how the city deals with citizens, developers, the media and anyone who dares directly challenge how the city deals.
My mantra stands: “We are a great people, in a great place and capable of great progress.” To unleash that progress we must first fix the problem with trust and transparency. The simplicity of capturing that progress is matched only by the difficulty of prescribing and conducting a civic enema.