A decision by the Fort Smith Fraternal Order of Police to “investigate” certain members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors is as understandable as it is unfortunate. The action provides a broad frustration outlet for uniformed employees in the city but is not the action of a group focused on long-term, constructive relationships.
The Fort Smith Board in recent months has struggled to find options to plug an anticipated 2015 budget year shortfall of $899,273 in the city’s police and fire (LOPFI) contribution fund. The estimates show the fund balance at $5.731 million by Dec. 31, but reaching a deficit of $419,042 by 2021. The Board voted 5-2 to return benefits under the pension plan back to the levels in place in 2004, saving the city an estimated $477,000 in this fiscal year and up to $516,000 by year 2026. But based on estimates, additional spending reductions and revenue increases totaling approximately $2.1 million annually are needed to keep the LOPFI contribution fund solvent beyond 2030. City Directors George Catsavis and Don Hutchings were the dissenting votes.
Police and fire officers were upset over the pension shift and concerned by Board discussions of further budget cuts. Again, the frustration with top city staff and the Board is shared by many citizens. There have been several years now of financial and policy mysteries at the city of Fort Smith – Van Buren water true ups, water park costs, lying to the Board and public about a study of compressed natural gas vehicle costs, lack of transparency in what resulted in an estimated $480 million mandatory plan to fix the city’s sewer system, just to name a few – that have frustrated many citizens.
However, it’s difficult to be empathic with the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) on this issue. The retirement plan the fire and police officers enjoyed since 2004 was a “Cadillac” plan. Only three fire departments and five police departments in Arkansas have the top-tier plan. An overwhelming majority of uniformed officer pension plans in Arkansas have the tier-two plan to which the Fort Smith Board recently voted to revert. There were questions in 2003 about the top tier plan being affordable for the city. The best analogy is, that like many Americans back in those days, the Fort Smith Board essentially bought more house than they could afford in 2003 and this new Board had the unenviable and unpopular task of refinancing the mortgage.
Also, there are other budget problems faced by the Board and top city leaders. Few, if any, easy choices exist. That’s what happens with any organization that for decades is comfortable with an operational status quo and kicking the can down the road on tough decisions.
Of the investigation into some of the Board members, Fort Smith Police Officer and FOP leader Matthew Holloway told The City Wire, “We don’t want to do this. … (T)he last thing I want is conflict.” However, if they do find something “embarrassing” the group has an “obligation to let the voters know,” he said. He offered repeatedly the vague goal that the investigation is simply to determine if certain Board members are “qualified” to make multi-million dollar financial decisions.
There are at least three problems with the FOP investigation.
Police have considerable authority. They can arrest, make traffic stops, have power over the chain of custody, and other critical actions with a big influence over anyone’s life. With that authority comes the responsibility to be more careful with their civic involvement. Which is to say an investigation by the local florist association may be an inconvenience, but an investigation by a group that represents a majority of the local police force carries – intended or not – some measure of threat and intimidation. Holloway was quick to refute any suggestion that their action is meant to threaten or intimidate.
The investigation is a popular action from the playbook of those who practice the politics of personal destruction. In the political world, it’s called “opposition research.” It’s designed to gather info that, often used out of context, results in successful character assassination. In other words, if you can’t beat them with your ideas and arguments, then you go after them personally.
More to that point, unless the FOP discovers a previously unknown and undisputed felony record that disqualifies a Board member, then the effort does nothing but create a relationship gap that will take years to close. And so what if the investigation reveals financial or family problems. Those things aren’t disqualifications. Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney are just a few folks who went bankrupt at least once. What about a person married twice with troubled children from the first marriage? President Ronald Reagan could relate to that situation. General Grant was a drunk and a failed storekeeper before being tapped by President Lincoln to end the Civil War.
Also, there are two civic processes in place for individuals or organizations in Fort Smith to more responsibly direct their frustrations at the Fort Smith Board. Board members may be recalled. Also, elections are held every two years in which candidates more sympathetic to your cause can be elected and those less so can be unelected.
This FOP effort will serve only to create a deeper divide in what is already a tense relationship between city employees and top city staff and the Board. For that reason, the FOP is encouraged to drop its plan to investigate certain members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors.