Fort Smith city directors say there is no one reason to blame for the city looking at vacancies in head offices of five city departments, with one director saying it is a ‘normal function’ in the business world.
Fort Smith Utilities Director Jerry Walters submitted his resignation Aug. 27, with his last day in office Sept. 13. Prior to his resignation, four other department heads have left the city. Nathaniel Clark, the city’s first African American police chief, announced March 27 he was leaving the post for another police job in the Atlanta area. Clark stepped into the Fort Smith chief police job on Jan. 7, 2017. Wally Bailey, who had worked under six Fort Smith city administrators, retired in June as the city’s director of planning to become the director of planning for the City of Van Buren. Finance Director Jennifer Walker resigned July 26 to take a job in Colorado. And Aug. 13, the resignation of George Allen, director of streets and traffic control, was announced at Fort Smith Board of Directors study session.
“Really it’s part of normal function in industry,” said Director Kevin Settle (at-large). “At my plant, I always lose three people every year. … Some people leave for additional funding, family, or they think the grass is greener on the other side.”
Settle said he was used to change and he doesn’t have any specific concerns about the number who have left this year.
While many directors, agreed with Settle that folks leave for a variety of reasons including Directors Keith Lau (Ward 1) and André Good (Ward 2), others had concerns. Director George Catsavis (Ward 4) said he fears Fort Smith is being used as a stepping stone to bigger and better positions away from Fort Smith.
“We are in a transition here, and I’d like to see what we can do. This is a stepping stone for them. They are looking for better pay and benefits,” Catsavis said in a study session Aug. 27. “I believe in hiring from within. Too many are leaving here. I think if we hire from within, we have a better chance of them staying.”
Director Lavon Morton (Ward 3) said he believes all who have left this year have done so for a better opportunity, except for perhaps Bailey, who has said he left because expanded duties of the job in Fort Smith were “becoming more bothersome to me.”
“I think we have some issues we need to look at to see if we are competitive in our (salaries and benefits). This is something that will be on a (study session) agenda coming up. We’ve asked for a study of it, and we’ll see how our pay compares to other comparable jobs,” Morton said.
Director Neal Martin (at large) agreed the reasons for leaving are varied, but said the main concern now is filling the vacancies, and Director Robyn Dawson (at-large) agreed. Dawson said her concern is for the community and that services proceed at the desired excellence level.
“Though they have all left in a fairly short amount of time, we can’t recoup or fill those positions in an equally short period of time,” Dawson said.
Martin is hopeful the process to fill the positions will move quickly.
“What we have to do now is fill these positions with good, very good people. Hopefully we’ve got some people internally who qualify, but we want to make sure we have the best people for the jobs,” he said.
At least one of the vacant positions might be filled fairly soon. Interviews for the three finalists for police chief are set for Sept. 16. The finalists are Andrew Harvey of Palestine, Texas, Alice Fulk of Little Rock and Interim Police Chief Danny Baker.