Fort Smith businessman Casey Millspaugh, the owner of the Fort Smith Popcorn Company, has considered himself an avid supporter of the city’s bikes and trails system for years. He even recently helped raise $50,000 through Ales for Trails.
For the last three years, he has served as a volunteer member of the Parks Commission and, for just over a year, as its chairman. But on Aug. 6, Millspaugh was terminated from the commission via letter by City Administrator Carl Geffken, leaving him in what he told Talk Business & Politics was “a state of shock.”
“There’s been no communication to me about any of the attendance policies, or no warning given to me after the second miss, so it was a total surprise,” Millspaugh said, referencing the letter’s reason that it was his three consecutive misses without an excused absence that triggered his “automatic” termination.
Absences can be excused by a vote of other commissioners. Millspaugh acknowledges missing the May 9, June 13, and July 11 meetings, the last of which did not have a quorum to hold a vote that would likely have given him a pass, considering the five remaining commissioners voted unanimously on Wednesday to reinstate him. Even so, he did not ask for that vote in July because he was unaware he was in danger of losing the position.
“It’s been three years since I came on the Board,” Millspaugh said. “I think we did some sort of swearing in three years ago. I didn’t receive a scope of responsibility or, to my knowledge, an attendance policy. It’s been three years, so it’s really hard to say. Obviously, if I’d have been given a warning after number two, I would have absolutely made sure that the commission voted on it.”
Millspaugh said he understood how the termination happened.
“I’m not trying to argue the ordinance. I understand that’s how it is. But I hope they can find an appropriate way to accept the parks commission’s recommendation to bring me back on. But I think from the people you saw here today, you see that I’ve got a lot of supporters who believe in what I’m trying to do. I don’t understand why it happened 30 days after the (July 11) meeting. It was kind of a shock to me.”
Geffken’s letter references Section 18-30 of the Fort Smith Municipal Code’s section on governance of the Parks and Recreation Commission. That section dictates “automatic” termination for three unexcused consecutive absences. Audience member David Harris saw the city’s side of it, stating that through 25 years of attending most of the city’s board and commission meetings, “I’ve seen it on occasion where somebody wants to be appointed but doesn’t want to serve. I don’t think that’s Casey’s spot, but what do you do? Other people want those spots. That’s why this rule was written. So you say, ‘Wait, they’re a really good person. I really like them.’ But that’s why the rule was written, in case you wonder why they’re picking on poor old Casey,” he said.
But most in attendance on Wednesday were there to call for reconsideration from the city’s Board of Directors, and many wondered if there wasn’t a deeper reason the city chose to act when it did.
One supporter, Sam Price, a candidate for At-Large Director Position 5, asked of Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman, “If it was an automatic termination (set in motion by the July 11 miss), then why did we wait until early August to let him know?”
That question set off concurring chatter among the Creekmore Park Rose Room audience. Millspaugh admitted to Talk Business & Politics he “digs” for information, and that can sometimes rub people the wrong way.
“I ask a lot of questions through email, and I dig. And I think sometimes they don’t like that. I can’t say that that’s related any to why they booted me off, but it was a shock to me that they did that, especially considering it’s a volunteer position.”
Part of that digging included a recent Freedom of Information request by Millspaugh to the city to get information on the city’s policy of using mosquito spray in city parks.
Dingman explained to the audience there are many times where, “if we know there is not going to be a quorum, we will cancel the meeting and not have it, but “that didn’t happen in this particular case.”
“We were waiting for a quorum to arrive, and it didn’t happen,” he added.
An audience member then asked if that was the case, why couldn’t the “excused absence vote” be held at Wednesday’s meeting.
“The way the code reads is that he is automatically terminated,” Dingman said.
Another supporter interjected there “was no meeting because there wasn’t a quorum,” so how could Millspaugh’s third absence count?
“We are where we are,” Dingman said. “I think there is an appropriate method for reinstatement, and that is the method” of going through the Board. The recommendation will be presented at the Aug. 21 regular meeting.
WHAT MESSAGE ARE WE SENDING?
Before signing off from her last meeting, five-year commissioner Sherry Tolliver commended Millspaugh’s work for parks and trails and left the city with a warning.
“We’re not going to keep young people if we harass them. We’re not going to keep young people if we make life hard for them here in Fort Smith where they’re trying to do things to help the city. And they’re trying to do things to help the city: bringing businesses here, encouraging, and having a positive outlook on Fort Smith when a lot of people are running us down. And when you get somebody like that, you want to encourage them and keep them doing what they’re doing. And this just seemed like a small thing that was done hurriedly and without much thought. Anyway, I’m happy that the recommendation passed, and I’ll be happy to see the results of that from the Board of Directors.”
Former Board member Pam Weber also showed her support for Millspaugh, stating, “I think we have to ask ourselves, and we should be asking the city, ‘What kind of message does it send to the city and to young people of the city to remove someone from the (Parks Commission) who has done so much for the city and its parks and trails?'” To Millspaugh’s supporters: “I look at this group, and I have to wonder what kind of message we’re sending to you all. And I hope the Board will be fully cognizant of the fact that we need all hands on deck in this city. We especially need young people involved.”
Answering Weber’s question, Millspaugh supporter Luke Pruitt said the message is clear: “If you alienate one of us, you alienate all of us.”