Resolute Post

Fort Smith Miserable Contempt for Open Government

After Fort Smith Arkansas received the dubious honor of being named, “The Most Miserable City in America,” Resolute Post has been doing some digging into the city’s affairs.

The most recent scandal that prompted the Arkansas Times Headline: FORT SMITH AND CONTEMPT FOR OPEN GOVERNMENT and PROSECUTOR SEES FOI VIOLATION BY FORT SMITH CITY BOARD, WON’T FILE CHARGES, are not even the tip of the iceberg.

Max Brantley, former Editor of Arkansas Times and 19 year employee of the Arkansas Gazette, the oldest continuously published newspaper west of the Mississippi, wrote the following:

“Is there really any doubt that some members of the Fort Smith City Directors spit on the state Freedom of Information Act?

Dave Hughes writes in the Democrat-Gazette today about yet another FOI lawsuit by Joey McCutchen, who’s successfully gone to war before with the local School Board and city government on the sunshine law.

No speculation here. The lawsuit contains smoking pistols in the form of e-mails among three city directors talking about how to respond to a proposed settlement of an earlier FOI lawsuit. This amounts to an unannounced private meeting.

The e-mails illustrate contempt for doing the public’s business in public. It’s not the first time.”

TV 40/29 reported that Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney Daniel Shue of Fort Smith released a letter saying he believes members of the Fort Smith City Board violated the Freedom of Information Act by discussing board business in e-mails.  The e-mails at issue concerned police department hiring decisions.

“I appreciate very much the valuable service performed by the Mayor, the Fort Smith City Administrator and the Fort Smith Board of Directors; however no violations like the ones that have occurred should be allowed to occur in the future,” Shue wrote. “The public deserves to be privy to all of the Board’s hard work, not just some of it.”

Shue’s letter did not state whether he intended to file charges or not but no such luck, Shue later said he’d file no charges, “providing that no further violations occur.”  Max Brantley had this comment, “Urging sinners to sin no more becomes an empty exercise at some point. The law provides punishment for willful law violators. It might be time to book ’em, Dan-o.”

[On a personal note, I have an issue working its way through the courts concerning the failure to prosecute theft by deception and other crimes against the elderly.  Although, not surprisingly, during the 2013 legislative session, 29 states and the District of Columbia had legislation to address financial crimes and exploitation against the elderly and other vulnerable adults, Arkansas dropped the ball.  Bilking money from the elderly is a three billion dollar industry and Arkansas is the low hanging fruit.  Stay tuned for much more on this later.]

This decision stemmed from complaints Shue received from Fort Smith citizens about a series of emails between city officials Keith Lau, Andre Good, and Mike Lorenz.

Shue came to the opinion after reading over and reviewing the emails, as well as reviewing reports from the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office, according to the letter.

It’s interesting how these three names keep popping up and how they seem to reject the reject the notion that discussing public business by private e-mail without notice to the public is legal. It isn’t.

Recently the Triumvirate set their sights on unseating the Chairman of the Fort Smith Civil Service Commission.  Ward 1 Director Keith Lau made a motion, seconded by Ward 3 Director Mike Lorenz, during a study session that the board have an executive session to discuss possibly removing the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission.

“The Board of Directors believes that the chair of the Civil Service Commission has the appearance of a potential conflict of interest according to Section 2A of the Fort Smith Code of Business Conduct,” Mayor Sandy Sanders said. “The City of Fort Smith Board of Directors requests that the chair of the Civil Service Commission voluntarily recuse himself and not participate in any Civil Service Commission activities during the duration of time that there is any lawsuit filed against the City of Fort Smith by the law firm of McCutchen and Sexton.”

Lau, Lorenz, Ward 2 Director Andre Good and At-large Director Tracy Pennartz voted in favor of requesting that Sexton recuse himself. Ward 4 Director George Catsavis, At-large Director Don Hutchings and At-large Director and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle voted against.

I still remember when the City Directors removed members of the Fort Smith Airport Commission and placed a City Director on the Commission in order to fire the Fort Smith Airport Manager.  The Arkansas Attorney General stated that it was a conflict of interest to have a City Director serving on the Commission but eventually the Airport Manager was fired anyway.

The Airport Manager was not a babe in the woods, he had flown more than 1,000 combat mission in Vietnam and received the Purple Heart for being wounded during one of those missions.  He had also just built a new Airport Terminal Building without money from Fort Smith Taxpayers.  Years before, the manager had acquired the land surrounding the airport and had leased the land to big box stores, hotels and other businesses in order to make the airport self sufficient.  Since a visionary Airport Manager like him could easily manage any airport in the world, he had a contract that stated he could only be fired for cause.

Although the city has an attorney, additional out of town attorneys were hired to fight the lawsuit brought about by the fired Airport Manager.  It was speculated that the firing was because a City Director wanted the job and a City Director did apply but quickly withdrew.  The end result was that the illegal firing cost taxpayers about a million dollars.

What did the Most Miserable City in America learn from that experience?  Apparently, nothing since the next scheme was to fire the newly hired Police Chief.  After a nationwide search, a candidate from Joplin Missouri was hired.  There was speculation that the desired candidate was the spouse of a City Director who lacked the education requirements but obtained them some months later.  Some believed the efforts to fire the new Police Chief was to install the favorite spouse who was fired by the new Police Chief, allegedly for disruption of the department by telling police officers that he would soon be the Chief?

As you can imagine, the City Council Meeting Room was standing room only when the Mayor gave a passionate plea against firing the new Police Chief.  The Mayor’s support combined with overwhelming support from the community saved the Chief’s job.  That Mayor was famous for saying, “Life’s worth living in Fort Smith Arkansas” but he passed away and now Fort Smith is what it is.


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