The Fort Smith Board of Directors narrowly passed a resolution at its regular meeting Tuesday (Sept. 3) that will change policy in how the city administrator hires department heads.
The resolution states, “Prior to the City Administrator completing an appointment … for the employment by the City of Fort Smith of a department head, including the chiefs of the police and fire departments, and prior to public announcement of the City’s Administrator’s appointment, an executive session of the Board of Directors will be held for the purpose of considering the appointment for employment.”
The ordinance was specifically worded by City Attorney Jerry Canfield to comply with the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. When Director Lavon Morton (Ward 3) requested the resolution Aug. 28, the request was to add “a resolution that the City adopt a policy whereby the city administrator discusses with the Board in executive session at a regular or special meeting employment decisions related to department heads prior to the final decision and public release thereof,” a memo from the clerk’s office said.
Canfield said if the purpose was for the city administrator to inform the board of his decision, it would be a violation of FOIA rules. Just to share information must be done openly. But if the purpose of the executive session is to “consider” employment, it is allowed.
Director Keith Lau (Ward 1) said he believes the policy is bad and undermines the authority of the city administrator. Director Kevin Settle (At Large) agreed saying “this is about control, and saying we don’t trust who (City Administrator Carl Geffken) hires,” Settle said. Director Neal Martin (At Large) said he believed the policy change had as its goal to discipline Geffken.
“If our goal is to discipline Carl, then we should do that the way we are supposed to do it (during reviews),” Martin said. “I am voting no on this.”
Directors André Good, Morton, Robyn Dawson and George Catsavis all voted for the resolution.
Former Mayor Sandy Sanders and resident David Harris addressed the board prior to the vote. Sanders said the resolution undermines the city administrator and opens the back door to politicking.
“It tells the employees the city administrator is not the really boss. It immediately undermines his authority,” Sanders said. “It will make the hiring pool smaller.”
Harris said he had talked to people and asked, if someone who has the ability to fire you and controls your salary says you should hire someone, would you consider it input or a directive All those he spoke to said they would consider it a directive.
“Input is not a mere suggestion,” Harris said.
Director Dawson (At Large) brought up the need for directors to have input on who is hired for “key positions” in the city during a study session Aug. 27. 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 item was placed on the agenda for the Sept. 3 regular board meeting. Dawson contacted the city clerk’s office around 3:45 p.m. Aug. 28 to have that item removed from the Sept. 3 agenda.
Whether the city administrator should have complete authority in hiring or firing city employees has stirred strong emotions from the board for years. 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.
In 2009, then-City Administrator Dennis Kelly proposed granting the city administrator hire-fire authority. It was not granted then.
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.”