Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken may only have one day on the job under his belt, but he has already identified his top priority: filling key vacancies that have left city government treading water since July 2015.
Geffken is taking over for former City Administrator Ray Gosack, who vacated his position suddenly in July of last year after more than 16 years with the city. With Geffken’s hiring in March, he eliminated that position from his to-do list, but he was left with a number of high profile positions to fill, including the replacement of Fort Smith Fire Chief Mike Richards, who announced his intent to retire in September after 33 years with the department.
That announcement was followed by Human Resources Director Richard Jones stepping down in October after 14 years of service, and 10-year Sanitation Department Head Baridi Nkokheli’s termination by Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman in December.
In March 2016, former Fort Smith Police Chief Kevin Lindsey announced his resignation, effective immediately, over racially charged comments related to the department’s unusually low number of African-American police officers. (The city has not hired a black police officer since 1995 and employs less than 3% in spite of the demographic’s 9% representation in population.)
Finally, Utilities Director Steve Parke, who endured significant scrutiny from the Board over the city’s $480 million consent decree for violations of the Clean Water Act, retired on April 1, 2016.
“First, right off the bat, is filling those vacancies that now exist,” Geffken said in comments to Talk Business & Politics on Tuesday (May 10). “Police Chief, Fire Chief, Utilities Director, HR. Working with Jeff (Dingman) on that to help move it forward. That’s a very high priority. Those are critical positions to the operation of a city.”
Geffken also believes “making people realize that this is a good city” should be a priority, and to emphasize that point, described his first day in office (May 9) as “exciting, welcoming, and warm.”
“Everybody has just been, ‘We’re excited to have you here.’ So it really matches the excitement for me to be here. And oddly enough, that’s a new feeling,” he said. “When I’ve been hired in other places, you don’t get people coming up to say, ‘This is a great city, we are excited with what we’re doing here, and we’re excited to have you here.’ They are pushing for success. Everybody expresses their opinions, but they’re coming together, and that’s not always been the case where I’ve been before.”
Geffken comes to Fort Smith from Children and Youth Services for Berks County, Pa., where he was the chief operating officer for four years. Prior to that he had a two-year stint as city managing director (2010-2012) for Reading, Pa. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from State University of New York in 1986, and his master’s degree in business administration in 1988 from City University of New York before cutting his teeth as a budget director for the New York City Department of Health from 1990 to 1998.
Geffken said he expects a relatively short adjustment period, but also acknowledged that it may take several months to get up to speed on everything.
“I wish I could say it’s going to be X number of weeks or months already,” he said. “I really want to grasp my hands around every part of the city, but it could be six months from now someone is going to ask me a question and I’ll have to say, ‘I haven’t gotten into that yet,’ but I’ll know chapter and verse on something else that’s much more important.”
Geffken’s first day on the job consisted of “trying to meet everyone as quickly as possible” and “pressing the flesh, going out to the departments, and finding out what’s going on, so I could draw from that information.”
That meant day one was packed with a number of meetings, something Geffken said he has a “temp for” even if it isn’t his preference.
“Being a city administrator or manager is more about making a change and getting work done than always attending meetings,” he said. “It has to be balanced and that is what I’ve always done before. I don’t want my calendar locked up with meeting after meeting. You don’t always get work done. And it’s about getting the work done.”
Geffken will participate in his first regular meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors on May 17.