Fort Smith citizen Joel Culberson is fighting to revisit the automated-versus-non-automated refuse collection debate by officially placing it on the November ballot. But according to City Administrator Ray Gosack, a win in November would not necessarily be the end of the issue.
“The board could still override it as long as they have five votes,” Gosack said.
Culberson admits that “the board of directors does have authority to override the results of the election, but I would contend that to do so would not be without political repercussions.”
His task will not be easy. Culberson must collect 2,822 valid signatures and submit them to Fort Smith City Clerk Sherri Gard by Aug. 8. Culberson said Thursday the ballot question — which must be part of the signature process — is “currently under legal review.”
“I will have more information within the next week. Since this is the first time I've been a part of a ballot initiative campaign, I want to make sure that I am following all of the necessary rules and procedures. I owe it to the voters who will sign the petition to make certain that the ballot language and title will withstand legal scrutiny and am consulting with professionals to help guide me in this process,” Culberson explained.
While he hopes for an election victory, Culberson believes the process will be positive without a November win.
“If nothing else, this petition process will give voters a chance to become more educated on issues that directly affect them,” Culberson said. “There are also three contested city director races in this election, so candidates will be asked to take a stand on this issue and allow voters to understand the rationale behind those positions."
Rationale that includes leaving a $1.10 monthly rate reduction on the table for all of Fort Smith, while possibly raising non-automated prices under a hybrid system $10.18 per month, according to Fort Smith sanitation director T. Baridi Nkokheli.
Gosack noted that the $2.1 million surplus absorbing non-automated costs will diminish if manual pickup continues, and rate increases would happen eventually if the city’s losses do not cease.
Despite these warnings, the City of Fort Smith Board of Directors voted 4-3 on Tuesday (June 5) to end the automated collection conversions in the remaining 20 neighborhoods, though only 13 of the neighborhoods wanted to stay with non-automated.
City Directors Philip Merry, George Catsavis, Steve Tyler, and Pam Weber voted for the resolution. City Directors Kevin Settle, Don Hutchings, and Andre Good voted against.
A crowd tilting heavily in favor of non-automated collection was on-hand at the Fort Smith Public Service Center for the vote. Most of the audience erupted in cheers.
THE SURVEY SAGA
Some of the same citizens, who initially brought their demands for non-automated collection to the board, were in attendance Tuesday. Citizens like Carolyn Plank, who at the Nov. 1, 2011, board meeting, initiated the complaints, stating that “no notification was forwarded to residents,” according to the meeting minutes from that date.
Plank requested automated collection be delayed pending formal notification and neighborhood discussion. This complaint, echoed at the time by Fort Smith citizens Rosemary Wingfield and Anna and Thomas Raymond, prompted Gosack to issue a first round of surveys.
The surveys initially returned with a majority of respondents (74.5% from already-converted neighborhoods) in favor of automated collection.
A second survey, initiated by the board at the Dec. 13 study session in spite of Director Merry’s claim on Tuesday that “no one on this board asked for these surveys,” returned with 46% of Park Hill East residents for automated collection and 37.8% against.
Following the second survey, Merry questioned the “consistency” of the surveys, stating that “there was a man, who owned 31 pieces of property, had 31 bills to pay, but he was allowed only one vote.”
This prompted Gosack to move forward on a third set of surveys to the 20 remaining neighborhoods that had yet to try automated collection to see what their preferences would be, to which Settle responded at the June 5 meeting and May 29 study session: “How can you know? How can you make an informed decision if you haven’t tried it?”
The results of the final survey showed a slight tilt (55% of 804 respondents) in favor of non-automated collection. Only 27% of those surveyed actually participated.
Department of Sanitation numbers indicate $50,000 in total expenses for the three completed surveys.