Fort Smith Civil Service Commissioners ‘hopeful’ for compromise with police chief

by Aric Mitchell (amitchell@talkbusiness.net) 981 views 

Civil Service Commissioner Marty Shell is hopeful for a compromise with Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark following a contentious non-vote at last week’s meeting. The five-member group met again on Tuesday (May 30) to entertain a motion from Clark to hold emergency exams for entry-level officer vacancies next month.

The Commission approved 4-1 – Commissioner Charolette Tidwell dissenting – allowing exams to be held on June 19 in an effort to fill 11 vacancies from retirement and routine attrition. Clark hopes the testing will allow officers to be active before the end of 2017.

To the request from May 22 that died without a motion, however, Shell said the Commission “wanted it to be fair competition.”

“From my point of view personally, I wanted a sergeant, captain, major or lieutenant to come from an agency equivalent to the size of Fort Smith or greater. The way it was written, it was very open and broad,” Shell said, adding it would have allowed the Chief “to get a sergeant from a smaller agency with less training,” while still allowing the individual to carry the title.

“To me, if you are going to translaterally change from agencies for ranking positions, you should have come from an agency with the same size and training standards or greater than what Fort Smith has. I didn’t want someone coming from a smaller agency with less experience into a city with a population of 90,000 livable with a daytime activity of 220,000 from a city of maybe 1,500 and carry the same rank.”

Shell continued: “I wanted apples to apples, not apples to oranges. In my opinion, it was apples to oranges. But I think there is compromise to be had, and we need to find it.”

At the May 22 meeting, Commissioner Chip Sexton stated a concern over officers being put on the streets who are not familiar with Fort Smith geography and Arkansas law, though he said he would be willing to support such a measure if it were “more narrow” in focus, using Fayetteville’s process as an example. (The city offers an external applicant process if there are three or fewer certified internal applicants for a position.)

For now, Clark acknowledged to Talk Business & Politics on Tuesday, it’s up to Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken what happens next. Clark said he has not made any tweaks to his original proposal. Geffken was not in attendance at the May 30 meeting, but stated on May 22, Clark’s vision is “what the city wants.”

It’s also what Fort Smith City Director Andre Good would like to see, even if it means dissolving the Civil Service Commission. Good told Talk Business & Politics “We need either a working relationship where the Civil Service Commission will allow the Chief to do his job, or if that cannot be attained, we need to get rid of the Civil Service Commission altogether.”

Good also doesn’t believe a “compromise” is in order.

“Why should we compromise? Why in the world do we have a civilian board that’s politically pressured by the Fraternal Order of Police – that’s not a union – to dictate authority over the Police Chief, who has taken a sworn oath to do his job and protect and guide the city? Why would we allow someone who doesn’t see how his officers perform tell us who’s best fit for a promotion? You can look at a resume and say, ‘He’s been here for 10 or 20 years, he’s been a good employee.’ But what do you see that’s not on paper? That’s what he (Clark) sees. So why do we have this group telling him what he can do?”

Good acknowledged the argument a Civil Service Commission can act as checks and balances on a department head, but believes Fort Smith’s well-documented diversity problem demonstrates an argument that can go both ways. The Fort Smith Police Department employs only three African-Americans, seven Hispanics, and 18 “Asian or Other” officers, Clark said. The department has 143 sworn officers altogether.

“You just don’t want uncles bringing in nephews, but you also don’t want people coming in and putting pressure on the Board of Directors, who then put people on this Commission to hire the personnel that they are being influenced to bring in by the Fraternal Order of Police,” Good said.

He added: “It originally was a checks and balances thing, and I see the need for that. But it’s antiquated, and it’s an abuse of power if not used correctly. And that’s where we are right now.”

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