The Vote for Automated (VFA) campaign clinched a win Thursday (Aug. 23) at the Fort Smith Board of Directors meeting in the ongoing debate over whether the city should move to full curbside automation for its sanitation services.
Members of the board who were previously opposed to following through on a more than five-year plan to fully automate trash service suddenly shifted their positions in a surprise vote approve full automation.
But according to Fort Smith resident and VFA organizer Joel Culberson, the ballot initiative effort is far from over.
“After several conversations with committee members, advisors and our legal team, I believe the correct action is to move forward with the ballot initiative and continue to work toward addressing the deficiencies raised by the City Clerk during the ten-day amendment period,” Culberson told The City Wire via email.
Culberson submitted 3,340 signatures to the City Clerk’s Office on Aug. 8, and received word Thursday that the petition effort was lacking only 10 valid signatures, and additional clarification in its ballot title, in order to move forward. (The 10-day amendment period allows VFA to make any necessary adjustments to win inclusion on the Nov. 6 ballot.)
“Over 2,800 signatures of Fort Smith registered voters have been collected and verified,” Culberson said. “Given the inordinate amount of time, effort and money expended by numerous volunteers and donors to facilitate that effort, I believe I owe it to all of the stakeholders involved in this process to see the ballot initiative to completion.”
Culberson said the feeling was unanimous among all “stakeholders” to whom he’d spoken since Thursday’s meeting. One particular area of concern for VFA supporters is the board’s action to unanimously approve automation after six months of 4-3 votes against.
“The action of the board during Thursday night’s meeting is unclear. Since the agenda item was added at the last minute, during the opening of the regular board meeting, there is no ordinance or resolution to document the exact effect of the board’s decision,” Culberson said. “I have asked for further clarification from the city administrator. He indicated that he has forwarded an inquiry to the city attorney who will provide a response next week.”
The “no ordinance or resolution” statement is true, though Fort Smith Director Philip Merry Jr., previously the opponent of automated, who motioned for Thursday’s abrupt switch, stated for the record there were “no strings” attached when questioned by fellow Director Don Hutchings if “what we’re voting on is what our petitioner has worked so hard for?”
Fellow Fort Smith Directors Andre Good and Kevin Settle have also shown hesitation at Merry’s move, which was endorsed by Directors George Catsavis, Steve Tyler, and Pam Weber, who had all shared Merry’s previous outlook on the issue, yet chose to endorse Thursday’s abrupt change with little discussion.
“I really wish I knew (the motivations). That’s why I questioned Director Merry about the intention of this. And when he came back later when we voted and said there were underlying circumstances and no conditions — I have to take him at face value. It’s kind of a weird feeling. I did not wish to be so hesitant, but I was trying to be cautious to make sure there was nothing looming around the corner waiting to bite us in the behind,” Good said immediately following the meeting.
“The board’s actions ... are surprising considering the four directors (against) were very adamant ... to leave it like it was,” Settle added. “For four directors to change their mind the way they did after the City Clerk’s done her work and the petitioners did their work is great, but why didn’t we do this six months ago?”
Culberson isn’t taking any chances, pointing out that “the ballot initiative contains language that defines the specific type of automated trash collection, specifies the collection location, explains how variances are handled, and outlines the troubleshooter service (carryout service for disabled persons). If this ballot initiative is approved by voters, it can only be amended or repealed with a vote of at least five of seven directors. In contrast, the action passed during Thursday night’s meeting can be changed with a simple majority of four votes.”