Four positions on the Fort Smith Board of Directors are coming up for reelection in November, and two are all-in for another campaign, one is out, and one is still deciding.
Talk Business & Politics recently spoke to the four Directors to see what their outlook was on a pivotal time in Fort Smith’s leadership, where the city is transitioning from seven key vacancies since July 2015 when former City Administrator Ray Gosack abruptly retired from his post. That move was followed by early retirements, resignations, and terminations, leaving city leadership porous and uncertain.
The primary election for the four positions is set for Aug. 9, with the general election being Nov. 8.
Candidate petition packets for city director positions are available in the Fort Smith City Clerk’s Office (Stephens Building at 623 Garrison Ave., Room 303), and may be picked up Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Each position is for a four-year term beginning Jan. 1, 2017. Candidates must be at least 21 years of age, residents of the city for at least six months, registered to vote in Fort Smith and reside within the ward. Candidates must file a “Statement of Candidacy” and submit petitions with the signatures of at least 50 registered voters in Fort Smith. There is a $10 filing fee.
Statements of Candidacy and petitions must be filed with the City Clerk, and the filing period begin May 11 and will close at noon on May 26.
TB&P posed four questions to each of the incumbents: 1) Are you running again? 2) What is the key influence behind your decision? 3) What are some accomplishments you look forward to in a hypothetical next term? 4) What are some accomplishments you’re proud of from the previous four years?
Here are their responses.
Ward 4 Director George Catsavis confirmed he will run for reelection. November will mark his sixth year in office after serving one two-year term and then getting reelected for a four-year in 2012.
“What I hope to accomplish in the next four years is maintaining a solvent budget especially in the general fund, making sure our police and fire departments have the funds to continue to perform at a high level of service, promoting a business friendly environment for small and large businesses, (and) making sure the the people’s tax money is spent efficiently.”
Catsavis said a personal accomplishment he would like to achieve if reelected is to develop “a stronger connection between city government and the community so that everyone feels that their voice has been heard and knows that we work for the people and that we are elected to serve the people.”
Also, he hopes to work with local state legislators to attain “an additional homestead exception for the citizens of Fort Smith to help offset the sewer increase that has taken effect, which has hurt a lot of people financially, especially our senior citizens and the working people.”
“I would like my fellow Board members to help with this issue and bring some relief to many,” Catsavis said.
Ward 2 Director Andre Good has been a mainstay on the Board for two consecutive terms, but indicated he is ready to leave the position to a new candidate.
“While I would be happy and proud to represent the citizens of Ward 2 for a third term, I understand that the will of the people ultimately determines who fills leadership positions, including this one,” Good wrote in a statement to Talk Business & Politics. “I am comfortable with that. Change is good, but so is experience. I welcome qualified candidates who wish to serve as Fort Smith City Director, Ward 2. I have served two consecutive terms, but I do not own the position; the citizens of Fort Smith do. Therefore, at this time, I do not plan on running for a third term as Fort Smith City Director.”
Despite the fact e is stepping away from the Board, Good said he will continue to serve the community and be actively engaged.
“That is my responsibility as a citizen of our great city,” he said, adding that the past eight years “have been an eye-opening learning experience to say the least” and that he believed “the best years are ahead for Fort Smith, and the candidate for Ward 2 will be instrumental in shaping our growth and transformation.”
His advice to whomever his replacement turns out to be is that serving the citizens “and collaborating with fellow Directors to ensure greater transparency and leadership within the organization is key.”
He continued: “Of my years of service, the thing that I am most proud of is not only being in position to help citizens and even city staff, regardless of ward or anything else, but actually helping and serving my fellow man. My parents lived that, and I am so happy that they both were there to see me sworn in before my mom passed in 2008. The other thing I am most proud of would be facing the many challenges and battles head on.”
One of Good’s last accomplishments as city director was to be one of the five affirmative votes for the hiring of new City Administrator Carl Geffken, who takes over the post from Acting City Administrator Jeff Dingman sometime in April.
Ward 1 Director Keith Lau is in the fourth year of his first term, and has helped oversee the last tumultuous year in city government. Despite some uncertainty about running again when speaking to TB&P in late 2015, he is officially running again, “because I haven’t completed the job I set out to accomplish.”
One of those key objectives for Lau was to find the $2.1 million in annual funding needed to fund the LOPFI Police and Fire retirement shortfalls that could see the funds becoming insolvent by 2030.
Lau said he also hoped to “recruit and hire a workforce which is more representative of the city’s demographics.” One example of this problem is the lack of diversity in the Fort Smith Police and Fire Departments. The FSPD has 164 sworn officers and only one black officer in spite of the city’s 9% African-American population. Likewise, the Fire Department has only three African-American employees out of 152 total.
Lau also wishes to implement “an integrated financial accounting system linking all departments,” while continuing to push for more audit controls and procedures to control the costs of the $480 million consent decree leveled by the city for violations of the Clean Water Act. This particular issue was one of importance to Lau throughout the last year as he frequently grilled retiring Utilities Director Steve Parke on service and consulting contracts related to the decree.
Lastly, Lau said he hopes to promote “a more equitable performance-based work environment for our employees and department heads,” while promoting “fair but stern leadership by doing the right thing the first time so you don’t have to deal with the consequences in the future.”
Issues aside, Lau believes the Board and the city government have made significant improvements in the last several months. He says he is most proud of “our efforts and success in bringing in (a) balanced general fund budget for 2016” and that he is “also excited about the work our Finance and internal audit departments are doing to control our spending processes.”
He continued: “To summarize in the last 24 months the city administrator and seven department heads have either retired, resigned, or been terminated. The city is in the middle of a huge institutional reset. We are making great improvements to our systems, processes and services to the citizens of Fort Smith. The work is not done and there are many areas which still need improvement. I am running for a second term because the job is not finished, and I am committed to improving how the city delivers services to its citizens.”
Ward 3 Director Mike Lorenz was less certain of his Board future, telling Talk Business & Politics he isn’t ready to make the call.
“I have not made a decision at this time and have a lot to evaluate before making that decision,” Lorenz said. “This is my first term as I was elected in 2012. There have been numerous small accomplishments in the past four years, but the overall, most important accomplishment is a significant movement by the Board to improve the fiscal responsibility of the city and working to improve the business environment in Fort Smith by simply staying out of the way.”
Like Lau, Lorenz acknowledged that the work was “by far not complete,” but felt the city was heading in the right direction “with a positive 2016 budget and a renewing pride in the citizens of Fort Smith.”
He continued: “I think the change in attitude can be seen in the new events that Fort Smith has seen just in the past year that have been led by private businesses and citizens such as the Steel Horse Rally, The Unexpected Project, Hell on the Border bicycle race, Peacemakers Music Festival and so much more.”
Lorenz sees confidence in the city’s future returning to business leaders and citizens, pointing to “numerous new businesses and excellent job growth in the past four years from ArcBest, Sykes, Shared Services Center, Propak, and others.”
As for his decision to run, Lorenz said he would make that “in the next few weeks,” and promised to issue a press release at that time.