Back in the spring I was lauding the sales tax initiatives in two communities where I have lived: Pine Bluff and El Dorado. Now, the two cities have something else in common: city councils that abolished commissions with oversight of key community services and shifted operations elsewhere. Both actions took place July 17 and both councils suspended the rules to get it done. Typically, the councils wait until a proposed ordinance is read aloud at three public meetings before voting on it.
The Pine Bluff City Council got rid of the Parks and Recreation Commission. The El Dorado City Council dissolved the El Dorado Water and Sewer Commission. Neither vote was unanimous. So let's take a look at how things played out.
In Pine Bluff, the city council voted 5-3 to abolish the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission and transfer authority over hiring of employees and spending to the mayor’s office. The council voted 6-3 to suspend that rules to vote on the proposal to abolish the Parks and Recreation Commission. Suspending the rules requires six votes, and Mayor Shirley Washington provided the necessary vote after opposition from aldermen Bruce Lockett and Steven Mays and Alderwoman Thelma Walker, the Pine Bluff Commercial reported.
Under the new ordinance, a parks and recreation board comprised of citizens will replace the commission. The board will have advisory input with the parks department director but not hiring and firing and budgetary powers, Washington said.
The opposition noted that all legislation is supposed to go through committees before being voted on by the council, which did not occur in this case. Washington said that she has conducted research since coming into office in January, and based her decision on those findings.
The nine-member parks commission has had the power to hire and fire employees, and budgetary discretion over funds allocated by the city. The commission recently accused the former parks department director of violating federal law by failing to pay two employees for overtime work. The director denied that she had knowingly violated the law, and resigned June 1.
The commission then voted during executive session at a meeting July 10 to make interim director Trudy Redus the permanent director. Sixty other applicants applied, but none were interviewed. Three commissioners later contacted the Commercial to say they had voted against Redus’ appointment but were not given a chance to record their votes publicly after coming out of executive session. The lack of a public vote to confirm the action taken during executive session appeared to violate state law, the newspaper reported.
Meanwhile in El Dorado, the council voted to form an advisory board that will report water and sewer issues directly to the Department of Public Works. Aldermen voted 7-1 to do away with the commission in a special called meeting. The council suspended the rules and read the dissolution ordinance three times. An emergency clause was enacted after final passage, meaning the ordinance went into effect immediately.
No representatives from the El Dorado Water Utilities were at the meeting and representatives of the water utilities and water and sewer commission said they were not notified of the special meeting.
Mark Smith, general manager of the utilities, told the El Dorado News-Times that he learned about the vote and meeting from Pete Parks, former chairman of the water and sewer commission. “I didn’t know anything about it, and as far as I know, none of the commissioners knew about it, either,” Smith told a reporter. In an email to the News-Times, Parks reiterated that none of the water and sewer commissioners were notified about the specially called council meeting.
So, they were surprised.
Problems with EWU have been discussed in the past and at the time a change in management occurred with the hiring of Smith in 2013. The council first considered dissolving the water and sewer commission more than four years ago. Customer service efforts, quality of repairs and willingness to address complaints were issues then and now, according to aldermen. Inefficiency while making repairs and low employee morale at EWU have been added to the list of complaints.
City officials came to the meeting prepared for change. City Attorney Henry Kinslow had already drafted the proposed ordinance, which was later adopted, with Alderman Billy Blann casting the only vote in opposition. Blann said he wanted to see the new plans for EWU before voting.
Under the new ordinance, a water advisory board will be formed and will consist of five members, each with five-year, staggered terms. The board will fall under the oversight of the Public Works Department, with the Water and Sewer Manager reporting to the Director of Public Works, according to the ordinance.
Given what has happened in Pine Bluff with the Parks and Recreation Commission, I understand why the mayor and council felt action was urgent. Legal issues put the city at-risk. Clearly, the commission circumvented hiring procedures by not interviewing applicants -- and likely broke the law by the way it conducted an executive session. When problems are apparent to the public and all involved, there is no point in beating the issue to death in committee meetings.
What I don’t understand is the rush in El Dorado. Widespread issues that demanded drastic action were not known to the public and representatives of the water utilities and commission. Why not give the public, EWU general manager, commissioners and water utilities employees the opportunity to respond? Why suspend the rules and push this through? Why call a special meeting? The end result might be the same, but at least the public and parties involved would have the benefit of transparency. This type of action raises suspicions that business was conducted behind closed doors and pushed through during a special meeting to avoid scrutiny that might impact the outcome.
Shea Wilson is the former managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheawilson7.