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FORT SMITH -- Civil Service Commission members have appealed to the Fort Smith Board of Directors not to choose new commissioners based on their willingness to vote for the police chief's request to change commission rules to allow the hiring of supervisors from outside the Fort Smith Police Department.

"Let's avoid any look that that is going on, that they would be choosing applicants who are going to vote how the city board wants, because we're independent of them," Commissioner Bob Cooper said during a brief commission meeting Thursday at police headquarters.

Responding to Cooper's statement Friday, City Administrator Carl Geffken said the two new commission members, who will enlarge the commission from five to seven members, will be appointed after being interviewed by the directors.

"And I know, based on our Board of Directors, they are not going to appoint people who have just one reason" to serve, Geffken said.

Cooper and other commissioners took the opportunity to comment during the meeting that was called to consider the city's request to withdraw Police Chief Nathaniel Clark's proposal first made in May. Clark proposed that the commission consider changing Section 12 of its rules to allow people outside the Police Department to apply for supervisory positions on the force.

The rules now allow only officers employed by the department to apply for the supervisory positions.

The request to withdraw Clark's proposal was in a Sept. 29 letter to the commission from the city attorney's office. It did not state a reason for the withdrawal.

Geffken said Friday that Clark's proposal was withdrawn because officials may want to amend it. After Clark had made the proposal, Geffken said, city officials had offered to let the Fort Smith Fraternal Order of Police chapter exclude sergeants from external applicants. The chapter had opposed allowing outsiders to apply for supervisor positions.

There could be other changes in the proposal if the city decides to resubmit it to the commission, he said.

The commission's four members who were present Thursday voted to accept the request to withdraw Clark's proposal.

The commission's fifth member, Chairman Chip Sexton, was absent. He had recused from participating in the issue in June, he said, because of the perception he lacked impartiality. The perception grew out of comments he made at the May 22 meeting when Clark first presented his proposal to the commission.

Cooper has been interim commission chairman for the item dealing with Clark's proposed ruled change since Sexton's recusal. Neither Geffken, Clark nor anyone from the city attorney's office attended Thursday's meeting.

Cooper told directors that when they are interviewing applicants for the two additional commission positions, they should consider the applicants' suitability to serve on the board, not how they would vote on Clark's proposal.

Commissioners Marty Shell and Orval Smith said they agreed with Cooper. Shell said he respected the decisions directors make even if he didn't agree with them, and said that he hoped they would respect the commission's decisions.

Commissioner Charolette Tidwell, who joined the commission in February, did not comment on the issue but said she hoped "our group and the directors group would be responsible and mature, that we all act in a mature fashion for the benefit of Fort Smith."

Clark first presented his hiring proposal to the commission at its May 22 meeting. After contentious discussion, during which police and firefighter organizations said they opposed the proposal, the commission took no action to consider the issue.

After the meeting, some directors called for the dissolution of the commission. At the directors' next voting meeting June 6, they passed a resolution supporting Clark's proposal and asking the commission to approve it.

The commission took no action.

At their July 11 meeting, directors passed a resolution asking Sexton to step down from the commission while his law partner, Joey McCutchen, was suing the city over what McCutchen called violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Sexton refused to recuse, saying he did not believe there was a conflict of interest.

State Desk on 10/14/2017

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