Fort Smith eyes four finalists for utilities director, decision expected in ‘about a week’ 

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 335 views 

The Fort Smith Utilities Director position is within “about a week” of being filled, according to Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken. Geffken told Talk Business & Politics that the long-vacant position had gone through the interview process prior to the holidays.

Following are the four candidates who interviewed for the position.

• Jerry L. Walters
Since January 2016, Walters has served at the Pentagon as a U.S. Army general engineer. For seven years prior to that, the Arlington, Va., native was the director of public works for the Army Garrison in Baumholder, Germany. He has also worked in a number of engineering and public works positions across the globe since 1985, including a deputy director of public works position in Hanau, Germany from 2005 to 2007. He earned a master’s degree in hazardous and waste materials management from Southern Methodist University in 1997.

• Kenneth C. Griffin
Griffin is from Williamsburg, Va., where for the last 11 years, he has worked as county administrator for King William County. Before landing the position, he served briefly as the director of public utilities for Smithfield Public Utilities in North Carolina. His first relevant position was a 13-year stretch as the executive director of Pearl River Valley Water Supply District in Jackson, Miss. He attained his doctorate in leadership and management from the University of Mississippi. His application package did not include a salary history.

• Abderrahman Zehraoui
Zehraoui lives in Houston, where, since 2005, he has served as the Wastewater Operations Manager for Sodexo, a subcontractor for General Electric. Concurrent with the position, he is a technical advisor for Norton Technology out of Chicago. His first significant role in wastewater was as the Senior Water/Wastewater and PMO Engineer for the Office National de l’Eau Potable in Rabat, Morocco. His highest level of education attained is a doctorate in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.

• Sherri L. Irving
Irving has 25 years of experience working in municipal government. She has served as the Industrial Waste Division Manager in Kansas City since December 2014. Prior to the position, she was the city’s assistant manager of operations. Since 1990, her experience has come heavily on the wastewater side. She was the assistant director of public works for Ponca City, Okla., from April 1990 to March 1997, and the director of water resources for Edmond, Okla., from March 1997 to September 2003. Her highest level of education attained was a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Tulsa which she earned in May 1989.

Salary histories were not included in the application packages for the last three candidates, noteworthy considering the city had previously offered the position to Francisco Martinez of Puerto Rico at an annual salary of $102,000. Martinez turned down the offer last September, thus delaying the hiring date for the position through the end of 2016.

The city advertised the position through Strategic Government Resources (SGR), the Dallas-based firm it used to recruit for the police chief and human resources director positions last year. That initial search took about two months following the resignation of former director Steve Parke on April 1.

SGR had more challenges recruiting for the role, receiving only 10 applicants compared to the combined total of 72 for the police and HR posts. The challenges likely had something to do with terms of the $480 million federal consent decree, which have driven a major sewer rate increase for Fort Smith residents and placed the department on a strict 12-year deadline for completion.

Until the city makes a hire, it will continue to call on Interim Utilities Director Bob Roddy of Burns & McDonnell, who has experience dealing with consent decrees.

Roddy estimates the city’s utility assets as worth between $1.5 and $2 billion. Rate increases will soon move the operating budget to $25 million in 2016 and $30 million in 2017. Approximately 49% of those figures will be shouldered by residential customers while 38% will come from commercial billing, 12% industrial billing, 1% “other billing,” and less than 1% from wholesale billing, Roddy said.

Operating expenses over the same period will be $26 million in 2016 and $31 million in 2017 as more requirements of the consent decree are implemented with debt service and capital expenses increasing over time. The consent decree has “complexity,” Roddy said, noting there are 400 specific items required of the city with 1,300 total entries when factoring in subsets.

“It’s complex and difficult, and you can slip up pretty easily if you’re not paying attention,” he added.

Also, as part of the capital requirements, Roddy said he anticipates the city will have to venture into land acquisitions (i.e. eminent domain), which “can get contentious.”