Fort Smith’s communication manager working on ‘relationships,’ wants to create a comprehensive plan

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,607 views 

Shari Cooper is back in town and she would like to have a word, or two, with you. The 1987 Poteau (Okla.) High School graduate began July 27 as communications manager for the city of Fort Smith and is working to “establish relationships” with city staff and residents.

She began post-high school instruction at Carl Albert Junior College and would years later finish with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English, and master’s degree in regional and city planning, from the University of Oklahoma.

Her municipal and government work history includes city planning, economic development and communications at the following stops.
• Napa, Calif., (2019-2015)
• Thousand Oaks, Calif. (2014)
• McAlester, Okla. (2013-2009)
• City of Philadelphia, Pa. (2009-2001)
• Oklahoma Department of Commerce, Oklahoma City (2001-2000)

Prior to 2000, Cooper worked as a journalist at KTHV-11 in Little Rock and with television stations in California and Kansas. It was while working as a freelance videographer in Hollywood, much of which was for Disney, that Cooper decided it was time to complete her college degree pursuit.

“I’m not married, so I’ve been very mobile during my whole life. … And that’s the other thing that I can tell you, is that the reason that I sort of went back and forth between places was that my family was always here, but I couldn’t always find a good-paying job in this area. I could find work in other places that paid really well and gave me different experiences, so I really liked that. And yet, I still kept getting, drawn, you know, I kept missing home. I kept coming home,” Cooper said.

Fort Smith Communications Manager Shari Cooper

She returned to Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma in early 2019 to deal with family concerns and with the hope to find an area job. And then COVID-19 hit. And then she noticed the Fort Smith communications manager job posting on the final day applications were being accepted.

Few who have followed the city in recent years would assert Cooper begins from a foundation of broad trust with respect to the city’s public relations. The previous Fort Smith communications manager, Karen Santos, resigned March 10, noting in her departure letter: “I’ve served as best I could in an environment averse to openness and clear, honest communication. And I hope folks can understand that despite my shortcomings, I did the best in the circumstances.”

Santos did not provide details on the “averse” environment, but it’s no secret the city has a spotty track record with “clear, honest communication.” The city lied for months about the recycling program, has a statewide reputation for not following the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, has been less than forthcoming about negotiations with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice officials about the federal consent decree tied to the wastewater system, was hamfisted with customer relations as it spent months fixing thousands of water billing glitches under a new software system, and there was the episode in which Santos lamented on social media that the city was “one of the most sexist cities in America.”

Fort Smith Director Keith Lau, who will wrap up eight years as city director when his term ends Dec. 31, said he would encourage Cooper to find a way to address “transparency and speed of service” in terms of responding to the public and media.

“I think those are the two big deficiencies we’ve had in the past. It’s not that there is any willful attempt to delay that, but they (city staff) are just bombarded with other things,” said Lau, who did not seek re-election to the city board.

He also said the city needs to be more proactive in “talking about what we do well,” and communicate better on sensitive issues – like the water billing glitch – as they come up.

Cooper plans to use her “drive and skill to evaluate information and develop solutions to problems” – as she notes in her online resume – to address what she realizes will be challenges.

“Social media is a big form of communication between the city and the public, and I see some of the comments that people have made on social media. I think that the impression that they have may be based on past years, going back, quite a while, maybe rate increases without understanding why,” she said.

Part of her job, which she says has begun, is to learn how all city departments operate so she can be best positioned to tell their story. Cooper said there are many city employees who “care deeply about” the city and are “trying to have a positive impact” for residents and businesses. She also wants to begin telling the public about changes made in recent years and how the city is better managed.

“The city administrator (Carl Geffken) has done a lot for the city in the few years that he has been here and it continues to evolve the work that he is doing. … That’s a story that I don’t think has been told yet,” Cooper said.

She also said the city’s relationship with the media “can never be good enough as far as I’m concerned.” She said her time as a journalist helps her understand the needs of the media, adding that she is already working with city administrator on how the city can better respond to and work with the media.

Cooper, who is paid an annual salary of $72,000, said her top priority is to develop a comprehensive communications plan for the city that also includes ways the city can support other groups in the area focused broadly on community and regional development, citizen support services, education and business growth.

“I’m a planner by training, and I need to develop a comprehensive communications plan for the city. That comes after I meet everybody, and figure out where the strengths and weaknesses are internally and externally and how I can sort of fill those gaps,” she said, offering her e-mail (shar[email protected]) for anyone who wants to meet with her.

Cooper said the region has changed considerably since her days growing up in nearby Poteau, and she is ready to learn more about the region and begin to tell “the better story” about Fort Smith.

“There is so much that has changed. It has grown so much, and developed so much. And it’s even redeveloped so much with its downtown and all the historic assets. I’m a big history lover, and so I love all the history that comes with Fort Smith and the architecture. But I also was amazed with all the development that is happening at Fort Chaffee and the new housing. I haven’t seen that kind of development in any of these other cities that I’ve visited or been in in quite some time.”