Fort Smith police, fire unions push for recall of city’s Board of Directors: how it would work

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 828 views 

The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 39 and Fort Smith Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 33 have united to recall members of the city’s Board of Directors.

The local police and fire unions announced their intentions late Thursday and released a joint statement on Facebook the following day (Sept. 15). In it, FOP Lodge 39 President Anthony Parkinson and IAFF Local 33 President Darrell Clark said they were seeking the recalls beginning with Ward 3 Director Mike Lorenz whose second term ends in 2020.

“For years we have idly waited for leadership and common sense to return to the board,” the statement read. “No longer will we sit on the sidelines and tolerate city directors who refuse to do the right thing, who refuse to properly fund public safety, who refuse to properly staff the police department, who don’t keep their promises, who don’t value city employees and who would rather dismantle or circumvent citizen committees/boards when they don’t like a decision. The time is right for new leadership. The time is right for the community to take a stand.”

The statement is referring, in part, to recent efforts involving the Fort Smith Civil Service Commission. At a May 22 meeting, the commission allowed a proposed rule change to die for lack of motions that would have allowed Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark to hire external applicants for upper management positions instead of continuing the longstanding policy of promoting from within.

Four members on the Board of Directors — André Good, Keith Lau, Mike Lorenz, and Tracy Pennartz — disagreed with the decision. Good called it a “closed system” and made public statements that if the commission didn’t allow Chief Clark to do his job, the Board should consider disbanding it.

The Board later passed a resolution advising the commission to consider Clark’s rule change, and then — citing a conflict of interest over a lawsuit against the city led by commission chairman Chip Sexton’s law partner Joey McCutchen — advised Sexton by vote to recuse himself on all matters until the lawsuit was resolved.

At a Sept. 5 meeting, the Board, again divided 4-3, voted to add two additional members to the commission with City Director Don Hutchings accusing the majority of directors of taking the action because they favored “stacking the court,” or forcing desired outcomes on matters like the Clark rule change.

In the FOP/IAFF statement, Clark and Parkinson said petitions would be circulating “shortly,” but did not give a concrete timeframe, and attempts by Talk Business & Politics to clarify were not immediately returned on Friday. However, City Clerk Sherri Gard said she had “multiple individuals call and inquire about the number of signatures required on recall petitions,” including Clark and Parkinson.

According to Gard’s calculations, the number of signatures required for a recall to move forward equal 35% of the total number of votes cast the last time the position was contested in a general municipal election, meaning that organizers will need 2,494 signatures from residents living in Ward 3 to successfully recall Lorenz. Since Lorenz ran unopposed in 2016, the basis for the signature amount extends to his 2012 contest against Matthew Garner. During the election, 7,126 votes were cast — this is where the 35% calculation applies — with Lorenz winning by a margin of 56%-44%.

To unseat the remaining directors, organizers would need to collect 6,242 signatures for Director Pennartz, 1,167 signatures for Director Good, and 2,048 signatures for Director Lau. When added to the required amount for Lorenz, the two unions would need a total of 11,951 signatures, which must come from the jurisdictions in which the directors were elected. Lau, Good, and Lorenz are Wards 1, 2, and 3, respectively, so any eligible signatures would have to originate from residents in those areas. Pennartz is At-Large, so the union’s efforts could focus citywide.

Considering Ward 4 Director George Catsavis, At-Large Director Hutchings, and At-Large/Vice-Mayor Kevin Settle have opposed majority actions regarding the Civil Service Commission, they would be in less danger of a targeted recall, but if the two unions did decide to go after them, required signatures would be as follows: Catsavis (3,494), Hutchings (6,418), and Settle (6,174). As in the other cases, signatures recalling Catsavis would have to come from Ward 4 while those targeting Settle and Hutchings could be collected citywide.

Recalling the entire sitting Board of Directors would require a total of 28,037 signatures. Pursuant to Arkansas State Code 14-48-114, collecting the 35% would only be part of the process for actual removal. The next step is the City Clerk determining the sufficiency of petitions — a 10-day process. If petitions are deemed sufficient (i.e. signatures collected meet jurisdictional requirements), the county Board of Election Commissioners would call for a special election and fix the date within 90 days of the Clerk signing off. From there, if the director is voted out, there would be an immediate vacancy on the Board. If not voted out, he or she — in this case, Director Lorenz — would be allowed to continue through the end of the term.

In cases of a vacancy, Arkansas State Code 14-48-115 allows the sitting Board of Directors to appoint a replacement by majority vote or call for a special election.

Lorenz responded Friday to Talk Business & Politics via written statement, claiming there was “a lot of misinformation being circulated” about him and the Board, “including statements made by the organizations that (are) behind this recall effort.”

Regarding the civil service commission issues, “I did not advocate for elimination, but I did question the function and the reason for its existence as a duplicate to many services I expected to see (the) Human Resources department handling, such as review of candidates and making hiring decisions.”

Lorenz said he appreciated the service of the five citizens serving on the commission, pushing back against Hutchings’ “stacking the court” claim by saying he “supported adding two more citizens to that committee in order to have a broader jury when making decisions and bring it more in line with other standing committees and commissions in the city.”

Lorenz said he had used leadership skills and common sense “for every decision that I have made in the four and a half years that I have been serving the citizens of Fort Smith.”

“I have never made a decision on any policy or agenda item that is simply the easy or popular answer or that benefits only a small group, as I was elected to represent the best interests of Ward 3 and the citizens of Fort Smith as a whole. I have the utmost respect for the men and women of our Fire and Police along with all City employees who serve our citizens every day and appreciate all those that are dedicated to providing excellent service to our citizens,” he said.

Lorenz called his time in office “challenging from a budget standpoint with nearly flat revenue.” Even so, he worked “to improve accountability, fiscal responsibility, and improve citizen access to information, and have focused on eliminating waste and improving efficiencies in every department.”

Lorenz pointed out the local police and fire (LOPFI) retirement fund issue, which, in January 2013 (when he took office), was facing a projected deficiency by 2019. Since that time, “we have added 12-15 years to the life of the old LOPFI fund and are working to assure we continue to stay ahead of that problem and prevent it from becoming insolvent throughout the rest of its lifespan.”

Lorenz also said he came in to budgets that were relying on savings to balance each year, thus depleting the reserve balance in the general fund to an unsafe amount. “If that had continued at the pace it was on, (we) would have depleted the entire fund balance within the next few years.”

Lorenz asked for citizens to understand that all seven members of the Board of Directors “have the best interests of our city in mind, and we spend hundreds of hours researching, reviewing and listening to citizen input in all decisions.”

“I chose to run for city office in order to give back to my community and help Fort Smith become a better place for future generations and I continue to believe in this mission today. I encourage our citizens to reach out to me or any director and our administrative staff and get answers to your questions, provide input about topics and get out and make a positive impact on our city.”