Fort Smith mayoral candidates discuss economy, form of government, FOIA

by Aric Mitchell ( 1,011 views 

(from left) Fort Smith mayoral candidates Wayne Haver, Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, and Luis Andrade participated in a candidate forum Thursday (Aug. 2) at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Fort Smith mayoral candidates Luis Andrade, Wayne Haver, and George McGill met on Thursday (Aug. 2) at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) to discuss their visions for the next four years.

The wide-ranging forum touched on topics like the city’s pending legal appeal over a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) violation, possibly restructuring the existing administrative form of government, and how to boost economic development. Andrade and McGill also fired the occasional barb, with Andrade connecting McGill to the leadership behind the city’s well-publicized recycling debacle from 2017.

“The leadership that got us there, and made that big mistake — took the people’s money and never returned it — has endorsed one of my opponents. So that’s something to think about,” Andrade said, referring to Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders’ earlier endorsement of McGill.

Because Andrade didn’t mention McGill by name, the rules of the forum did not give McGill an opportunity to respond. But on another occasion, Andrade nudged McGill for voting against HB 1041 in 2013, an attempt to establish a spending cap on the state budget so spending would not exceed the state’s average growth rate of disposable personal income. McGill seized on that opportunity since the question pertained to what the candidates would do to check over-spending. McGill questioned whether Andrade “understood spending caps,” adding that he “voted that we control spending” when opposing the bill. McGill said the legislation would have given “unfair freedoms” to certain investments.

“I believe in creating opportunities, but in this case, because of the way the law was written, I voted against it and thought it could have been done better than through the legislation.”

McGill also took an opportunity at the end to ask Andrade about his unwavering support for President Donald Trump. McGill questioned a Facebook post of Andrade’s that called Trump the “best President ever.”

“George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln — on what basis?” McGill asked.

Andrade owned the remark.

“He’s done a lot for this country. He gave up a lifestyle not many in the world had to fight for us, and it’s been proven that he is fighting for us. Numbers don’t lie,” Andrade said, referring to several months of positive economic numbers and job creation.

He continued: “I chose my slogan, ‘Make Fort Smith Great Again,’ because I believe Fort Smith is in a similar situation America was in a year ago with the forgotten men and women, the blue-collar workers of this town. It’s about getting government out of people’s lives. Let people live their lives. Let the private sector do their thing. Get regulation out of the way and all the bureaucracy gone. Let’s make this country great again. Let’s make this town great again.”

To the point that Fort Smith is not all that it can be, Andrade pointed out that, on the campaign trail, “about seven out of 10” of his college friends planned on moving away after graduation. He also repeated something told to him by a prospective voter: “Fort Smith is addicted to taxation” and fees. The answer, for Andrade, was more economic development. A better regulatory environment and saying yes to casinos within Fort Smith city limits were two possible solutions for bringing that about.

On the casino issue, McGill seemed to agree, stating casinos and gambling “are already here, all you have to do is look 10 minutes this way and 15 minutes that” in reference to the casinos in eastern Oklahoma. In contrast, Haver, a 34-year principal of Southside High School, said he did not believe casinos were an answer to creating additional revenues.

“I believe they cause as much detrimental as positive things. I know we have a lot of citizens go to Pocola and Roland and put their money over there. And all the ads you see have everybody smiling. But not everybody smiles when they go to the casinos. I would dare say 95% of them don’t come back with any money. It contributes to more poverty. It gets to be an addiction, and I don’t think it’s the answer to us raising our revenue.”

When it came to economic development opportunities, Haver and Andrade specifically mentioned the city’s unique transportation opportunities. Haver said he would pitch Fort Smith’s “great rail system, great water system, great transportation system, great air service,” adding they were things “Northwest Arkansas is jealous about.”

“They (NWA) don’t have the facilities or transportation opportunities that Fort Smith does. And I would put forth those positive things to make Fort Smith be the place investors want to bring their companies and their families,” Haver said.

None of the candidates were ready to change to a mayoral form of government just yet, but they weren’t taking the suggestion off the table either.

Haver said it could work “very well” as-is, but noted that “only three in our state — us, Barling, and Siloam Springs — have this form of government,” adding that a mayor “can bring forth the positive things of our city and work well with the citizens” in either form. Andrade believed the current form “could” work, but said there was “too much of an agreement between all the members of that Board (of Directors),” who can seem like “Yes Men.”

McGill said he is often asked why Fort Smith was still an administrative form, “but that’s not to say it doesn’t work well. Most of the time it does.”

He continued: “But I would do a bottom-up assessment of what we have and explore what it would mean to Fort Smith if we did have a different form of government. I would have those discussions and make sure the citizens have a say in it.”

On the city’s decision to fight an FOIA lawsuit on appeal, Andrade said that FOIA law “should never be touched,” and praised the law for bringing “a lot of transparency to our government.”

“If it’s something that will matter to taxpayers, then it should not be discussed privately,” Andrade said.

For McGill, the real issue was addressing the leadership that got the city into the situation in the first place “and establishing a culture of outstanding customer service, which means everybody being held responsible for the jobs they’re paid for.”

He continued: “We’ve had too many instances of people not carrying out their responsibilities to dot the I’s and cross the T’s and keep the citizens in mind. We establish a culture that demands excellence, and if we don’t do that, people should be held accountable. And you will know that (in my administration). It’s very easy to notify the public with things that are going to impact them whether it’s in the water bill or the amount we spend on legal fees.”

Haver said in his role as Southside principal, he only had one FOIA request, which he addressed without question. “FOIA is used when someone doesn’t think they’ve been informed about what’s going on, and most of the time those things can start out with face-to-face meetings, yet they still don’t feel as though they’ve been given the truth. That’s because of a lapse in openness to city government or other entities. I’m a firm believer in FOIA.”

Early voting begins Aug. 7 with the primary election on Aug. 14. A winning candidate must receive greater than 50% of the vote. Failure to do so will result in the two top vote-getters in a runoff during November’s general election. The position of Fort Smith Mayor pays $450 per month in a vehicle allowance and $10,000 annual salary. Terms are four years.