What a difference a year makes. The Ward 1 community meeting at Creekmore Community Center Thursday night (Jan. 10) had two things the first in December 2011 did not – turnout and civility.
Fort Smith resident Joel Culberson, who led a successful initiative to take the city to fully automated trash pickup in November 2012, said he was pleased with the level of involvement and the civil dialogue shared between more than 80 attendees and community leaders.
Surprisingly, the crowd more than doubled the one at the initial Ward 1 meeting, and cooler heads prevailed all around as opposed to its predecessor, which Culberson described as "much more heated." (Fort Smith Communications Manager Tracy Winchell estimated that "about 30" had attended the first meeting.)
Newly elected Ward 1 Director Keith Lau, who was surrounded during most of the small-group portion of the night, said it was a positive environment.
"It was very inviting. There were tough issues people wanted to talk about, and they put those opposing viewpoints out there," Lau said.
One of the "tough issues" Lau addressed came from Fort Smith resident Barbara Hardcastle regarding the planned Fort Smith Housing Authority (FSHA) development at Bailey Hill.
"How do you weigh the rights of the property holder with the potential devaluation of a neighborhood? Idealistically, there are neighborhood meetings, a unified development ordinance, and other guidelines and buffers between the development and the residential," but the Bailey Hill pushback "is a valid concern," Lau acknowledged.
In October the Fort Smith Board of Directors conveyed the Bailey Hill Reservoir land to FSHA for use in a subsidized housing development. First mention of the plan drew immediate dissent, first at a community meeting in August and later when the land was conveyed at the October meeting.
Some in attendance Thursday were also in disagreement with using city funds for the project. (FSHA is seeking $434,950 for the housing.)
The River Valley Landlord’s Association sent a letter – dated Jan. 10 – to the city opposing the Bailey Hill project. Association President Anthony Lee wrote in the letter that the land donated to the FSHA but not made available for private interests to acquire. He also noted that FSHA projects, because they are heavily subsidized, are able to offer lower rates on better properties, thus possessing an unfair advantage in the rental market.
Another hot-button topic Lau addressed to his ward members was the Urban Deer Bowhunting proposal presented by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at a Tuesday (Jan. 8) study session.
"The deer hunting thing has taken on a rumored life of its own," Lau said. "People were saying there would be hunting in the neighborhoods, and that's not how it's going to work. There are guidelines. The hunting would be done from a deer stand. It would be 200 yards away from buildings. There are permits and permission needed to hunt on private property."
The community meeting was a chance for Lau to address concerns like these directly with his constituents. Lau also used the event as an opportunity to reemphasize his commitment not to micromanage.
In comments to The City Wire afterward, Lau said, "This past Tuesday we had a professional group come to us from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and say, 'This is a problem,' and they want us to do something about it."
Lau continued: "It goes back to not micromanaging. If we have a professional group, who knows what they're doing and they say this will take care of the problem, why are we second guessing them?"
Lau's statement indirectly pointed a finger at Director Pam Weber, who said on Tuesday she would vote against the Urban Deer Bowhunting proposal adopted in several cities throughout the state to help control deer overpopulation and reduce the risk of disease and traffic accidents caused by crowding of deer in urban environments.
Still, Lau maintains that the "vibe" of his first term, and his first ward meeting, is good.
"This was about healthy engagement, and agreeing to disagree when necessary. It's about having two opposing views, sitting around in a circle and talking about it. Heck, I'm open to changing my mind, and everybody else is open to changing their minds, without getting locked down with in-fighting."