Fort Smith Board discusses diversity issue, whites make up 86.4% of city workforce

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 315 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors finally got an opportunity to discuss department diversity across city government at Tuesday’s (April 26) study session, and they found common ground on one key conclusion: something needs to change.

According to a memorandum from Acting City Administrator Jeff Dingman citing employment data through March 25, 2016, there is a considerable lack of diversity across many of the city’s 20 departments.

Eight of those departments are 100% white, while some of the larger departments like police and fire have a combined total of only 10 black employees out of 359, or approximately 2.79% despite the fact that African-Americans comprised 9% of Fort Smith’s population in the 2010 Census. Overall there were 49 African-Americans out of 895 total employees, an employment percentage of 5.47%.

In a related note, the numbers provided at the study session were for the Fort Smith metro, citing a black population of just 4% – a discrepancy City Director Tracy Pennartz pointed out during the session.

Hispanics, who comprised 16.5% of Fort Smith’s population as of April 1, 2010, are represented in only 3.02% of the employment data (27 out of 895 total employees). The number of Hispanics in police and fire ran slightly better at 3.34% (12 out of 359 employees), but was still way under the city’s population makeup.

Women also fell under the mark with 19% employment representation against a city population makeup of 51.3%.

Whites were the only group overrepresented with 774 employed out of 895 positions, or 86.48% versus the Census demographic of just 69.3%.

For Pennartz, the numbers were bad enough on their own, but there was also something troubling about the structural hierarchy.

“When you have the absence of diversity in the upper ranks of the city or any organization, it says a lot about what those who are in a minority population can aspire to if they join that organization. The lack of diversity in our senior management positions says a lot to potential applicants about where they can hope to be,” Pennartz said.

She continued: “I think there is a clear lack of diversity in the city base of employees. Now do I have all the answers about how we can achieve diversity? No, but I know there are steps we can take that can lead us to that goal of more acceptable diversity numbers.”

Vice-Mayor Kevin Settle suggested that Human Resources needed to become a more integral part of the hiring and interview process.

“I think HR should be involved in all hiring,” Settle said. “Now if that means we have to put an extra person in HR, too, to help meet that goal, someone with the background to understand it’s important, so be it.”

When Dingman pressed that HR was already involved in hiring, Settle clarified that it needed to be “the interview process” and that there should be “a piece of HR in every interview. … I think it’s a start, but I don’t know if it’s going to be a catch-all. We need to look at what other cities are doing as well. Many are broadening their base for where they are going to find employees. Some are going to Dallas, for example. That’s just another question we need to ask.”

City Director Andre Good, the Board’s lone African-American representative acknowledged the diversity problem within police and fire, but felt that it ran deeper than that and was a “customer service issue” in the city’s inability to treat all groups equally.

“We need to think about the kind of organization that we’re building because what we are building is going to reflect in the community,” Good said. “If I don’t feel as though I have value within the city structure, why would I want to work for the city? If I feel as though I don’t have the same right that any other would have in having a good life and providing for my family, my well-being, why would I want to be apart of that? You wouldn’t.”

Specifically discussing the lack of African-Americans within the Fort Smith Police Department, Good believed “subjective questioning” had a role in excluding blacks from the process.

“Going through the process, I know there have been African-American candidates who have passed the written test, passed the physical fitness test, passed the agility test, and when it came down to the subjective questioning, that’s where the drill-down occurred. It’s the scoring.”

He continued: “It (the problem) is not all in the process, but how the individual is scored. Keith (Lau) and I are going to score Director Pennartz on a subjective question. I feel as though she answered it very incorrectly. I’m going to give her a five. Keith, on the other hand, thought she did a good job and said, ‘Well I’m going to give her a 10.’ Now that is the basis for my confusion. What makes my reasoning any different from Keith’s? Why should my negative input or something that I have against Tracy factor in on this process? But it does, and it has, and no one can tell me in this room that it hasn’t. We have had African-Americans pass every single portion of the test and when it got down to the part where it is subjective questioning from the panel or the Civil Service Commission, it’s in their questioning process that numbers get dropped. I’ve been called out for racial profiling and all this other stuff, and that’s not what I’m about. I’m just trying to get to the real matter of why there is such a disparity particularly within the police department and fire department.”

The city’s only black police officer, Wendall Sampson, is suing the department for “discrimination in employment and promotion.” The filing from attorney Matthew Campbell on behalf of Sampson is seeking “full back pay as the result of the discriminatory failure to promote Plaintiff and his subsequent demotion/transfer, …”

While nothing was decided at Tuesday’s study session, the discussion took up much of the 80-minute runtime and will likely be an ongoing issue for the Board in the year(s) ahead.

Also Tuesday, City Finance Director Jennifer Walker gave Directors a huge sigh of relief when she cited an update to the Debt Service Coverage Ratio (previously estimated at between 25% and 30% against a 110% minimum).

“We knew this did not meet estimated DSC, and we were continuing to evaluate the calculation,” Walker said in a memo. “In the following days, we determined that the initial calculation had included the Debt Service Payments of approximately $13 million in the Operating Expenditures. This was an error, as these are not considered Operating Expenditures, which artificially decreased the DSC ratio.”

While the final DSC Ratio is still unaudited, Walker said she and external auditors were estimating 1.21 (121%), a number everyone “felt very comfortable with.” While Walker said that it “may change a little bit, nobody is concerned that we would not meet our requirement anymore.”

A faulty debt service coverage ratio can negatively impact the terms of future and existing bonds. Poor DSC ratios could also result in further rate increases, which Fort Smith residents have already had to endure in relation to sewer rates as a result of the $480 million consent decree for the city’s violations of the federal Clean Water Act, so Tuesday’s update was a good sign for City Directors.

Finally, Kansas City-based consulting firm Burns & McDonnell met with Directors to discuss provision of interim help with the aforementioned consent decree as the city seeks a qualified replacement for retired Utilities Director Steve Parke.

Burns & McDonnell named four qualified individuals from their firm that would be designated to a support services contract, and the arrangement may ultimately include designating one of those individuals as Interim Utility Director, Dingman said in a memo.

City Directors were pleased enough with the “staff augmentation” presentation to give Dingman the authority to proceed. Estimates of associated cost and the specifics of a contract for services will be forthcoming.

B&M’s Bob Roddy was one of the individuals named and was on-hand to answer questions. He is a former public works director with more than 39 years of experience in public water and wastewater utilities, administration management, and public works program management. Roddy served as director of Public Works for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, and was responsible for water pollution control, solid waste service, stormwater management, streets, and bridges.

As assistant county administrator, he completed a four-year negotiation of a Partial Consent Decree with the EPA regarding clean water compliance issues. He was also responsible for a variety of operational departments, including public works and water pollution control, economic development, planning and zoning, code enforcement, and parks and recreation.