Controversial hire-fire authority returns to Fort Smith board agenda

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 902 views 

A past controversy in Fort Smith city government has returned. The Fort Smith Board of Directors will have the opportunity to vote to revise a city ordinance that gives hiring and firing authority to the city administrator.

On Aug. 20, 2013, the Fort Smith Board of Directors reversed a city policy in place more than 45 years and gave the city administrator position the hire-fire authority over department heads. The only positions not under the city administrator authority are the internal auditor and district court clerk. The Fort Smith police chief and fire chief fall under the city administrator’s new authority.

Director Robyn Dawson, at-large position 5, during a Tuesday (Aug. 27) study session brought up the need for directors to have input on who is hired for “key positions” in the city. Dawson also broached the subject at the Aug. 13 study session, asking that the topic be placed on the Aug. 27 agenda.

After much, at times heated, discussion amongst the board, Dawson requested a revision to the ordinance giving the city administrator hiring and firing authority including a provision that the board be able to have “input” in the decision.

“The authority would remain that he could go with his own choice. The only difference is that (now) the board has no input when even community members have input, but the board has no input at all. It would be much the same as he is doing with his panel of community people now,” Dawson said. “The board should be able to exercise that same option of looking at the candidates and giving input.”

City Administrator Carl Geffken explained his process for hiring department heads at the meeting. He said he brings in the final candidates together and has them meet with two different interview panels. The first panel is made up of citizens, often leaders in the community, while the second panel is made up community members with more knowledge in the field. While panel members might not give input on their opinion, they do have the opportunity to ask candidates questions, Geffken said.

City directors are invited to a lunch in between the two panels, a time when they are able to give input. After the panel interviews, candidates are given a small project to complete. That project is rated, and candidates have a final interview with Geffken, he said. Then a decision is made.

Dawson said she wants the directors to be given the names and information of the three or five finalists prior to the decision, and for the directors and administrators to meet in executive session to discuss and share opinions on the finalists. Ward 2 Director André Good agreed to place the item on the agenda for the Sept. 3 regular board meeting. He agreed with Dawson that the board needs to be involved in the hiring process.

In 2013, Good was for changing the ordinance to give the authority to the administrator without the need to have it approved by the city directors. He, however, opposed granting the city administrator hire-fire authority in 2009 when it was proposed by then-City Administrator Dennis Kelly.

At the time, the issue had been a sensitive political topic following an early 2008 attempt by then-City Administrator Randy Reed to fire Fort Smith Police Chief Kevin Lindsey. The resulting controversy resulted in a quasi-demonstration at a city board meeting, Reed’s resignation and the resignation of City Director Velvet Medlock. Kelly first publicly presented his request to shift the hire/fire authority to the city administrator during a May 12, 2009, study session. Then-Fort Smith Mayor Ray Baker opposed the attempt, even calling Kelly’s idea “petty stuff.”

Ward 1 Director Keith Lau, who was for the change of the ordinance in 2013, was against adding any revision to the ordinance at Tuesday’s meeting, saying doing so would allow the board to micromanage and show a lack of confidence in the city administrator.

In 2013, Director and Vice-Mayor Kevin Settle did not agree with giving the city administrator absolute hiring and firing authority. He has since changed his mind.

“Not only is it unfair to the city administrator, it is unfair to the candidates,” Settle said. “We would be looking at resumes and picking someone from that. … Dr. (Doug) Brubaker, (Fort Smith Public Schools superintendent), doesn’t have to go before the school board and say I’m thinking of hiring this principal. Dr. (Terisa) Riley, (University of Arkansas at Fort Smith chancellor), doesn’t have to go to the UA Board of Regents to say I want to hire this person as provost. That’s not what you do in industry. … You could lose a city administrator and then department heads, and what do you gain? Input?”

The board is expected to vote on the matter Sept. 3.

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