Fort Smith Board expands civil service commission, supports internet tax collection

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 679 views 

The Fort Smith Board of Directors will move forward adding two civil service commissioners after a contentious Tuesday night (Sept. 5) vote.

Directors George Catsavis, Don Hutchings, and Kevin Settle voted against the ordinance after two failed attempts to stop the vote – one a motion to table and the other a motion to make one of the new positions a retired police officer and another a retired firefighter. Both motions were put on the table by Settle.

Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken said there were issues with the current five-member panel conducting business due to illness and surgical procedure. In June, the Board, citing a potential conflict of interest due to Commissioner Chip Sexton being the law partner of Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen, pressured Sexton to recuse himself after McCutchen brought an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the city.

Geffken advised Board members any new additions would be subject to the same application and vetting process, so “there is no other issue the seven of you would need to review and vote on” out of a potential study session. Shortly thereafter, Directors Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz, Tracy Pennartz, and Andre Good voted the amendment down.

After the retired firefighter/police officer amendment failed, Director Hutchings spoke up, stating it was “blatantly obvious” what the Board was trying to do with the additions, “and it’s pretty disturbing.” Hutchings referenced the May 22 meeting when commissioners refused to take up Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark’s request to hire upper management positions from outside the department. The majority of city directors have supported Clark’s efforts on the grounds of landing more qualified personnel and improving the department’s overall diversity. The Fraternal Order of Police opposes Clark’s efforts for reasons mentioned here.

Hutchings said the Board “is struggling with credibility” and has “a lot of issues that we need to speak to our people about, and a resolution like this, I think, pushes our citizens further away from trusting us.” Hutchings added the Board was “stacking the court” in its favor to essentially force the civil service commission to do its bidding.

Director Lau disagreed with the characterization he and others were attempting to “stack the deck,” citing the commission’s inaction since July.

“I don’t know why the civil service commission hasn’t convened before now to vote on that proposed rule change. We’ve had nothing to do with that. My desire to increase the membership is to have a more diverse membership on that commission,” Lau said, adding that he was looking for “someone, or a group of people, who can bring other talents and better talents that can better serve,” such as someone in personnel or Human Resources.

Lau continued: “I know that the civil service commission now is struggling to go through the (personnel) interviews, and they have to go into two groups to do them. It could be better served with more members on that board. So this is not an end-run to get around.”

Lau also observed it would take at least 60 days to properly vet and appoint new applicants to the commission. By then, the existing commission could “have that meeting before we put anybody on.”

Also Tuesday night, the Board voiced its support for a resolution asking Gov. Asa Hutchinson to call a special session of the legislature to consider and pass legislation requiring collection and remittance of state and local sales taxes by all retailers in Arkansas.

This would specifically target Internet purchases, something Board members argued would even the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses that often cannot compete on price for having to charge taxes while sites like Amazon and Overstock do not.

Of all persons in Arkansas to file tax returns in 2015, only about 500 claimed taxes owed for purchases made on the Internet.

Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders said when factoring per capita taxes times Fort Smith population, the city is conservatively losing $500,000 annually due to uncollected taxes from purchases made on the Internet. City directors voted 6-0 supporting the resolution. Director Catsavis abstained.