The search for a new city prosecutor for the City of Fort Smith is preparing to start anew, with the city continuing to pay an outside attorney almost four times the hourly rate in the interim.
The city prosecutor position was left open when John Settle, who served as the city’s prosecuting attorney for 11 years, died Oct. 26 after suffering a heart attack at a gym. Seven attorneys applied for the position when it was originally posted following Settle’s death: Matt Davis, Christina Scherrey, Joshua Bugeja, Barry Neal, Patrick Flake, Joseph Self, Natalie King and Lee Davis.
That group was narrowed to two — Scherrey and Davis, both attorneys with the Sebastian County Public Defender’s Office — who took part in panel interviews Feb. 7. City Administrator Carl Geffken spoke with Fort Smith Board of Directors for their input on the position in an executive session Feb. 18.
Geffken now says he has decided to renew the search.
“Based on the fact that we required candidates to live in the city of Fort Smith, that narrowed the pool a little,” Geffken said.
Though the original search brought the city many qualified candidates, Geffken said many excellent lawyers who practice in Fort Smith and might have applied could not be considered because they do not live in the city. Therefore, the requirement for a candidate applying for the position will be changed so that they must live in Sebastian County, Geffken said.
The new search is not to begin for “several months” still, though Geffken said he believes a new city attorney will be in place before the general elections in November. The thought is to allow things to return to a somewhat more “normal” state than what is now because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“We were looking at filling this position before the first phase (of the pandemic.) Now we are in a small second peak. Hopefully by waiting a little later in the year, things will be back to normal and open the (search) pool a little more,” Geffken said, adding that he hoped Scherrey and Davis, the two earlier finalist reapply.
Until the prosecutor position is filled, Rick Wade with Daily and Woods, PLC, will continue to handle prosecuting duties for the city, as has been the practice since Settle’s death and even prior to that when Settle was on vacation. Wade is paid $160 per hour for prosecuting work for the city, Talk Business & Politics was told in February by then city communications manager Karen Santos. Geffken said Wade has been paid $36,073.20 so far this year. That breaks down to $3,456 in May; $5,712 in April; $9,038 in March; $8,644.40 in February and $9,222.80 in January.
The salary range for the full-time position is $27.27 to $41.84 per hour, which calculates to a range of $57,721.60 to $87,027.20 annually, Santos said in February. In the city’s 2020 budget, the city prosecutor’s office was budgeted for $204,357 for the year, with $193,972 for personnel and $10,385 for operating expense. The office is budgeted for two employees, the prosecutor and a legal secretary.