By vote of 4-3, the Fort Smith Board of Directors closed a more than two-hour executive session Tuesday night (July 11) by asking Civil Service Commission (CSC) Chairman and Fort Smith attorney Chip Sexton to recuse himself from all CSC-related issues until such time as law partner Joey McCutchen’s lawsuit against the city is resolved.
The Board declared there was the “appearance of a conflict of interest,” Mayor Sandy Sanders stated following the session. Directors André Good, Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz, and Tracy Pennartz were the deciding votes, while Don Hutchings, George Catsavis, and Kevin Settle were the dissenting.
The matter stems from Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark’s ask that hiring for senior-level positions be opened up to outside applicants. Under Sexton, the matter died for lack of motions. When Clark was hired to replace former Chief Kevin Lindsey, one directive given to him by the Board was to improve the department’s diversity record. Not being able to hire outside applicants for senior-level positions, Clark argued, placed him in a position where any minority new-hires would have to start at the bottom regardless of qualifications.
At a meeting in June, Sexton recused himself and the Commission agreed to discuss Clark’s motion sometime in August. This new recusal would differ in that it would not be confined to the original issue but all CSC matters, Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken told Talk Business & Politics following the vote. Sexton said that was his understanding as well. While the Board left the decision to Sexton on Tuesday night, he told Talk Business & Politics that not recusing could ultimately lead to his removal from the Commission and that not recusing would “place the Commission in a difficult situation” for as long as McCutchen’s lawsuit against the city continues.
“And I don’t think Joey’s lawsuit will come to a close any time soon,” Sexton said.
While Directors could not discuss the particulars of what was said in Tuesday’s executive session, on Thursday night (July 6), Director Catsavis told Talk Business & Politics he asked for removal of the issue because “Mr. Sexton has commented that an executive session may not be the correct way to address the issue, so I would like to hear from our attorney if it is acceptable to proceed or not.”
Catsavis emphasized the need for “a legal opinion” from the city’s representation.
“Personally, I do not see a conflict with this issue. Mr. Sexton has not filed a lawsuit against the city, so are we assuming guilt by association, so to speak? I believe the people would like to see the city move forward addressing the sewer issue and the recycling fiasco than worrying about something like this.”
The complaint against the city alleges Good sent an email to City Administrator Carl Geffken on May 23 to complain about the commission decision against Chief Clark’s request. Good noted that progress “will not happen as long as this closed system persists.” McCutchen asks in the complaint that the court stop city officials from “conducting public business through a series of emails without providing the public with notice of the emails and giving the public the opportunity to provide input in the emails.”
Link here for a lengthy PDF copy of Bruce Wade vs. The City of Fort Smith filing.