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I'm a journalist focused on government, policy, politics and people. I find what matters and bird dog it like nobody's business.

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robbie.ward@journalinc.com

  • Stories Written by Robbie Ward

    county_lee_greenBy Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – The Lee County Board of Supervisors approved a $1.5 million payment Monday on the $7.5 million countywide emergency communications upgrade, a system receiving rave reviews from users.

    The most recent payment to system provider Motorola means the E911 system is now 90 percent paid for. The remaining $754,606 will likely be paid by early September.

    The E911 system provides county and municipal first responders within Lee County communications even in the most remote areas locally and up to 300 miles away.

    “We have found nowhere we cannot communicate with this new system,” said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson. “We spoke to an officer down on the Gulf Coast Friday who sounded as if he was in the county.”

    Unlike the previous emergency communications network, local emergency responders and officials can communicate on the same channel during emergencies requiring more than a single department or agency. It also connects with wireless communication systems used by the Mississippi Highway Patrol and other state-level first responders.

    Lee County E911 Director Paul Harkins describes the new system as “working great” despite a few glitches attributed to users learning how to use the system. Communication with the radio system has included echoes, feedback and unclear transmissions during the 20 days used.

    “It’s learning to fine-tune it so we can’t get the feedback and but allow dispatchers to hear,” Harkins said.

    The communications system will have a two-year warranty after the county formally accepts the system, replacing a 21-year-old dinosaur by emergency communication standards. County leaders decided to transition with the new system after parts for the predecessor could no longer be found.

    Supervisors financed the system through a modest tax increase of 1.5 mills ending in 2028.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    town_tupelo_greenBy Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – The City Council will listen to electronic cigarette advocates and opponents sound off today before likely approving a public ban of the nicotine alternative to tobacco cigarettes.

    Adding e-cigarettes to Tupelo’s existing smoking ban in public places seems likely to pass today but council members supportive of expanding the 2006 ordinance two weeks ago may remain skeptical until the entire group raises its hands to vote.

    A council majority had voiced support two weeks ago for the public ban of e-cigarettes, which use flavored water vapor as a method to ingest addictive nicotine. However, two who had done so – Lynn Bryan of Ward 2 and Markel Whittington of Ward 1 – changed their minds, saying the ban needed exceptions to allow use of cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes in specialty shops focused on selling related products.

    Council members received a draft ordinance the day of the Aug. 5 meeting allowing the business exceptions, but Bryan and Whittington voted against discussing it. Whittington said he needed more time to review the document.

    Tupelo residents and others will speak to the council about the issue before a vote on the public ban Bryan and Whittington say they’ll support.

    Willie Jennings of Ward 7 encouraged the councilmen at a Monday work session to share any wavering thoughts to prevent a repeat of the previous meeting.

    “It was indicated that everybody was OK with it who was going to vote for it,” Jennings said. “I’m a man of my word.”

    Councilmen Buddy Palmer of Ward 5, Mike Bryan of Ward 6 and Jennings previously voted to discuss the public ban, while Lynn Bryan and Whittington joined Nettie Davis of Ward 4 in opposition.

    E-cigarettes currently face no regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration but could face the same requirements as tobacco cigarettes within months. Limited research on the health impact of e-cigarette use exists. Users of the products invented in China a decade ago say vaping helps to kick the tobacco cigarette habit.

    FDA analysis of e-cigarette products has revealed toxic chemicals, including one found in anti-freeze.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com A man walks past piles of debris on Friday that have yet to be picked up after the Azalea Gardens apartment complex was torn down last month on Ida Street in Tupelo.

    Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
    A man walks past piles of debris on Friday that have yet to be picked up after the Azalea Gardens apartment complex was torn down last month on Ida Street in Tupelo.

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – City Council discussion Monday on city-owned apartments turned from property management responsibility to wondering how long it will take to remove debris from 100 units razed more than a month ago.

    Tupelo Chief Operations Officer Don Lewis informed council members July 18 that demolition had started to remove 14 buildings at Azalea Gardens, the same day an informal agreement was reached for the nonprofit Neighborhood Development Corporation to accept property management responsibility for the property purchased for $2.15 million in April.

    “We need to get that picked up pretty quick,” Council President Mike Bryan said of the debris. “I saw people out there looting the other day.”

    The city purchased the blighted property with a history of crime in hopes of turning the area around.

    Construction companies have a week from today to bid on debris removal, allowing work to begin Sept. 3, the day after the City Council plans to approve a contract.

    That’s also the day that a contract is expected to be approved for the Neighborhood Development Corporation to assume responsibility for the property’s management.

    Mayor Jason Shelton said after the work session that the length of time between demolition and debris pickup at the Ida Street property was unfortunate. However, the lengthy wait is better than leaving the buildings standing, the mayor said.

    “It was a hazard to public health and safety,” he said.

    City Planner Pat Falkner said four more of the apartment buildings likely will be demolished.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    SHELTON

    SHELTON

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – Mayor Jason Shelton received national attention recently on cable news network MSNBC, which identified the first-term elected official as one of four rising stars to watch in state politics.

    The left-leaning cable news network mentioned the Democratic mayor in one of a continuous series of political profiles of all 50 states. The Daily Rundown, a morning program with Chuck Todd, featured Mississippi’s “rising stars” on the Friday broadcast, appearing online Monday.

    Shelton, 38, has received widespread praise for his handling of the aftermath of the shooting death of one police officer and the wounding of another in December and the city’s response to the April 28 tornado.

    “He’s credited with showing strong leadership in both crises,” the MSNBC program host said of Shelton.

    A producer for the show said it asked journalists from throughout the state (including this reporter) and the cable channel did its own research to help determine which politicians – two Democrats and two Republicans – to feature. Other Mississippi political leaders featured are Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber, a Democrat, state Treasurer Lynn Fitch and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, both Republicans.

    Shelton began his first term in elective office in July 2013, the first Democrat elected as Tupelo mayor since 1981.

    “It’s flattering to be recognized,” Shelton said Monday. “But the thought of us doing a great job is the result of a great team, not any one person.”

    Supporters often encourage Shelton to consider seeking a higher office.

    The mayor with a libertarian side has emphasized fiscal conservatism during his relatively short time as mayor. Even supporters of his 2013 Republican opponent have said the attorney has impressed them with his willingness to work with others.

    The state GOP unsuccessfully tried to defeat Shelton and three other Mississippi Democratic mayoral candidates in 2013 elections.

    As for the Tupelo mayor’s political future, he seemed open to a higher office when asked, but likely not this decade.

    “Certainly not at the moment,” Shelton said. “I plan on running for re-election in Tupelo in 2017.”

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Don Pollett of Blue Springs and Kkevin Dulaney of Tupelo reconstruct shelves recently inside a city-owned warehouse at 1600 S. Green St. State law requires the city to keep different documents ranging from a couple of years to forever.

    Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
    Don Pollett of Blue Springs and Kkevin Dulaney of Tupelo reconstruct shelves recently inside a city-owned warehouse at 1600 S. Green St. State law requires the city to keep different documents ranging from a couple of years to forever.

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    Tupelo and Lee County, like other local governments statewide, continue violating state laws by failing to maintain and archive public records involving key decisions about public money, policy and laws.

    Public records of elected, appointed and other officials in government extend much deeper than basic information involving votes during meetings. Residents have a legal right to access most records and business-related communications from elected public officials and other public employees.

    Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson told the Daily Journal he thinks the public should have limited access to documents related to how and why county government leaders decide policies, even if the records don’t involve sensitive information. He suggested an option is for officials to limit communication about county business to conversations and phone calls.

    “I’m not trying to do anything underhanded, I just try to keep public records to a minimum,” Thompson said.

    State law requires local governments to retain and archive public documents for periods of time, ranging from just a few years to forever, depending on their importance. Many records, such as audits, budgets, contracts, property deeds and documents approved during meetings are routinely maintained and archived by city, chancery and circuit clerks and other record-keepers. However, little oversight and accountability exists for maintaining and organizing other documents requiring compliance with the same standards.

    Destroying public records can be much more subtle than shredding documents. It can happen as easily as pressing delete on a keyboard or cellphone.

    Tim Barnard, director of the local government records office at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said he doesn’t know a single government among the state’s nearly 300 municipalities and 82 counties in full compliance with the law.

    “Some are better than others,” he said.

    Government officials not paying attention to Mississippi records laws should seriously reconsider, said Alan Shark, executive director and CEO of Public Technology Institute, a Virginia-based national nonprofit organization focused on technology issues that impact city and county governments.

    Beyond open record laws, legal disputes often include electronic discovery, a federal rule since 2006, which allows judges to issue subpoenas for all digital and electronic records related to lawsuits. He said this additional legal aspect makes electronic records management systems essential to include records like emails, text messages and even communication on social media.

    Beyond legal requirements, Shark said when governments don’t maintain and archive records, it can encourage an environment of public mistrust.

    “The U.S. system of government was built on a healthy mistrust because they saw the excesses of bad government they had run from,” Shark said.

    Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com The city of Tupelo relocated records from a storage facility damaged by the April tornado. Tommy Scruggs has spent hours cataloging misplaced documents at the new location at 1600 S. Green St.

    Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
    The city of Tupelo relocated records from a storage facility damaged by the April tornado. Tommy Scruggs has spent hours cataloging misplaced documents at the new location at 1600 S. Green St.

    Federal laws require strict standards for maintenance and archiving of national records, but laws and policies vary from state-to-state. The level to which documents are maintained can have a direct impact on how well residents can follow the process leading to government decisions.

    Public records, defined by the Mississippi open records law, include paper, electronic and other mediums. Communication of official government business makes a document a public record, not the material used to communicate the information. The public by law has access to all government documents except for specific sensitive information such as tax information and addresses of law enforcement officers.

    The Mississippi Ethics Commission ruled in December that the Daily Journal should have access to emails it requested between Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton and former department head B.J. Teal, although the city could redact information exempted by state law. The Commission ruled in April text messages qualify as public records. Local officials including Lee County’s Thompson and Tupelo city attorney Ben Logan have acknowledged that failure to archive emails and text messages identified as public records conflicts with state law.

    Tupelo City Clerk Kim Hanna said she asked the mayor and all department heads to begin archiving and maintaining their emails after the state Ethics Commission ruling. Hanna said she has limited ability to ensure all city employees maintain electronic and digital information.

    “We have archive capabilities for them to save and not delete it,” Hanna said. “But it’s up to the user to decide whether to archive it, just like hard copy letters.”

    An electronic policy allowing public officials to decide whether to keep or delete emails allows for too much discretion, said Shark.

    “I don’t think the honor system works here,” he said. “In terms of good government, there needs to be an official system for that to be stored.”

    Logan said Tupelo will pursue a digital records policy to include text messages. In spite of state law requiring it, Lee County has no current plans to begin collecting electronic communications such as emails and text messages.

    Hanna said city information technology employees have started exploring options, including use of outside companies for electronic record compliance. Commercial providers offer maintenance and archiving at required security levels for electronic records including emails, text messages and social media communication. Costs start as low as a penny per gigabyte monthly, which translates into a dollar for storing the equivalent of an entire library floor of academic journals.

    However, local leaders usually rank any new expense for storing and archiving records toward the bottom of priorities when deciding how to spend tax money. City Council members discussed recently dipping into city reserves to pay for overlays for streets in poor condition. The Lee County Board of Supervisors will hold a work session this week to discuss finding new revenue to repair roads in critical condition.

    Regardless of priorities and related costs, criminal laws exist to prevent destruction of public records.

    Unauthorized personnel intentionally destroying public records can face a misdemeanor conviction resulting in fines from $500 to $1,000. Another law, a felony, requires up to 10 years in prison for anyone who “wittingly” erases or changes a public record.

    However, state and local officials contacted by the Daily Journal had no knowledge of either law ever being enforced.

    Tom Hood, executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, sent an email denying any enforcement power for retaining and archiving records, as did a spokesman for state Auditor Stacey Pickering. They both referred related questions to the state Department of Archives and History.

    “Unfortunately, we don’t have any enforcement power so all we can do is recommend,” said Barnard with Archives and History.

    Both District Attorney Trent Kelly, who has responsibility for prosecuting criminal violations in seven counties, including Lee County, and Lee County prosecutor James Moore said they’ve never heard of any attempt at prosecutions for destroying public records in the area but said the laws could conceivably be enforced.

    “If there’s a statute on the books that has been violated, the sheriff’s department or police department would be responsible for enforcing,” Moore said.

    Suspected violations could be presented to a grand jury to decide whether to proceed with misdemeanor or felony charges. As for prosecuting the crimes against local officials, Kelly said he’d refer the matter to the Mississippi Attorney General’s public integrity division for assistance.

    Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said he has no knowledge of any county or city investigation associated with local governments not retaining or archiving records.

    Oklahoma State University faculty member Joey Senat, a reporter for the Commercial Appeal prior to earning a doctorate in mass communications, wrote a research article published recently in the journal Communication Law and Policy about public officials using personal electronic devices to send emails and text messages related to official business. He said governments not keeping and organizing digital records removes transparency and the public’s access to information.

    “They may think it’s personal but it’s not,” he said. “It belongs to the rest of us.”

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    Mississippi email management guidelines

     

    Local government records retention schedules

     

    Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Lerland Kindt, data processing manager for Tupelo's finance department, shows off one of the city's computer servers used to connect electronic information throughout departments citywide.

    Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
    Lerland Kindt, data processing manager for Tupelo’s finance department, shows off one of the city’s computer servers used to connect electronic information throughout departments citywide.

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – A retired fire station used as a depository for sensitive city records holds little now besides ruined building materials, shattered glass and disorder.

    Soggy, smeared and torn papers and other materials only remain since the April 28 tornado. There are many boxes of city court and city personnel paperwork as well as paperwork of former mayors that didn’t receive significant damage. However, blowing in the wind, Tupelo records traveled far from home, some more than 50 miles way.

    “We’ve had people to call us, even out in the county, some as far out as Burnsville,” said Tupelo City Clerk Kim Hanna.

    Tupelo employees gathered the messy records collection and transferred them to a city-owned warehouse at 1600 S. Green St. The bulk of records remained in decent shape, but some wound up in garbage bags, and some were placed separately on the floor to dry out. For months, workers have continued the process of reorganizing the collection.

    State retention record laws require cities to keep some documents anywhere for less than five years to forever. Most attention right now is focused on those that are supposed to be around forever.

    Records specialists with Mississippi Department of Archives and History visited to review the extent of damaged government records, a common practice after major disasters. None of the permanent records from the damaged fire station required restoration.

    Tupelo’s public records fared incredibly well compared to those on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when entire swaths of records no longer existed.

    City leaders plan to demolish the former fire station and sell the property for commercial use. A permanent location for the records remains uncertain since the Green Street warehouse may have a better future use.

    Federal disaster relief funds could help the city plan a better record storage location, possibly climate controlled.

    “We may redo a building; we may build from the ground up,” said Tupelo Chief Operations Officer Don Lewis. “We don’t know right now.”

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    news_politics_greenBy Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – Seven Ward 3 residents filed paperwork by 5 p.m. Friday to appear on the ballot for a nonpartisan, special election in less than three weeks.

    Two new candidates today joined five others in hopes of representing the City Council seat vacated by Jim Newell, who moved to Saltillo and resigned from office Aug. 1.

    Contenders bring a wide mix in age, professions and other experiences in the local contest to represent the city ward of about 5,300 residents.

    The median age of candidates is 62. Five are in the 60s, while the others are 29 and 30.

    Nearly all interviewed by the Daily Journal have concerns about declining neighborhoods and want to help find ways to encourage residents to continue living in Tupelo while encouraging others to relocate to the city.

    Six candidates lives between West Main Street and Cliff Gookin Boulevard, while one lives close to North Gloster Street and West Main Street.

    Candidates who filed paperwork by the Friday deadline are:

    • Travis Beard, 68, 2415 William Drive, a recently retired Milam Elementary School principal and former math teacher and coach.

    • Ed Breedlove, 30, 552 West Jefferson St. No. 2, an assistant shipping manager at Gibson Corrugated and a singer/songwriter.

    • Mike Coutoumanos, 62, 102 Hinton Circle, a health care professional and former Ward 3 councilman from 1997-2001.

    • Lorna Holiday-McGee, 61, 1212 Robin Cove, a former Tupelo Public School District teacher.

    • James Hull, 62, 1008 Coolidge St., a pastor and media consultant.

    • James “Jim” Pitts, 64, 1012 Monroe St., a warehouse technician for Comcast.

    • Derek Russell, 29, 1694 Valley View Cove, director of operations at the Link Centre and owner of an animal care business.

    All candidates will appear on the ballot pending a criminal background check to ensure none have a felony conviction, which would disqualify them from office.

    State law requires the candidates to collect a petition of 50 current registered voters in the city ward as part of paperwork to qualify.

    A single candidate must win at least 50 percent plus one vote on Sept. 4 to avoid a runoff election on Sept. 18. A runoff election will prevent the new council member from voting on the city’s 2015 fiscal year budget, required by state law to be approved by Sept. 15.

    A runoff election will be Sept. 18 if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

    Ward 3 stretches from the central part of Tupelo near Crosstown and includes neighborhoods in the historic downtown, Gravlee and Mill Village, along with Lee Acres and Audubon.

    The ward also includes the commercial and medical areas along South Gloster and Green streets and extends south to the recently annexed Summit subdivision near Verona.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – Seven Ward 3 residents filed paperwork by 5 p.m. today to appear on the ballot for a nonpartisan, special election in less than three weeks.

    Two new candidates today joined five others in hopes of representing the City Council seat vacated by Jim Newell, who moved to Saltillo and resigned from office.

    Contenders bring a wide mix in age, professions and other experiences in the local contest to represent the city ward of about 5,300 residents.

    Candidates who filed paperwork in time for today’s deadline are:

    • Lorna Holiday-McGee, 61, a former Tupelo Public Schools teacher.

    • James “Jim” Pitts, 65. No other information was immediately available.

    • Travis Beard, 68, recently retired Milam Elementary School principal and former math teacher and coach.

    • James Hull, 62, a pastor and media consultant.

    • Mike Coutoumanos, 62, a health care professional and former Ward 3 councilman from 1997-2001.

    • Ed Breedlove, 30, an assistant shipping manager at Gibson Corrugated and a singer/songwriter.

    • Derek Russell, 29, director of operations at the Link Centre and owner of an animal care business.

    All candidates will appear on the ballot pending a criminal background check to ensure none have a felony conviction, which would disqualify them from office.

    State law requires the candidates to collect a petition of 50 current registered voters in the city ward as part of paperwork to qualify.

    A single candidate must win at least 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff election on Sept. 18. As the field of candidates grows, chances of avoiding a runoff election shrink.

    A runoff election will Sept. 18 if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote.

    Ward 3 stretches from the central part of Tupelo near Crosstown and includes neighborhoods in the historic downtown, Gravlee and Mill Village, along with Lee Acres and Audubon.

    The ward also includes the commercial and medical areas along South Gloster and Green streets and extends south to the recently annexed Summit subdivision near Verona.

    Read more in Saturday’s edition of the Daily Journal.

    robbie.ward@journalinc.com

    Thomas Wells | Buy at PHOTOS.DJOURNAL.COM Union County Sheriff Jimmy Edwards, center, and United States Marshal Dennis Erby answer qustions following the announcement of the capture of janet and Romon Barreto on Wednesday.

    Thomas Wells | Buy at PHOTOS.DJOURNAL.COM
    Union County Sheriff Jimmy Edwards, center, and United States Marshal Dennis Erby answer questions following the announcement of the capture of Janet and Ramon Barreto on Wednesday.

    Janet and Ramon Barreto

    Janet and Ramon Barreto

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – Accused child abusers Janet and Ramon Barreto resided in a filthy mobile home in rural Union County prior to evading the U.S. Marshals Service on a cross-country hide-and-seek for five years and eight days.

    The fugitive husband and wife faced a combined 25 counts of federal and state crimes and managed to zig-zag from Northeast Mississippi to northwest Oregon, possibly by way of Mexico, California and Washington before being arrested Tuesday.

    Janet Barreto wore a wig and went by a dozen or more aliases, while her husband used a half-dozen or so fake names as they tried to avoid capture by the U.S. Marshals Service, a federal law enforcement agency of about 4,000 marshals and deputy marshals.

    On average, the U.S. Marshals Service arrests 302 fugitives daily.

    Next week, the parents each will face indictments for failure to appear in court for original charges of manslaughter of a child, three counts of child abuse and six counts of child neglect and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Janet Barreto also is charged with tampering with a witness, related to trying to convince her biological daughter to lie about the abuse.

    Even with their capture, the question remains: How could the couple avoid capture for so long?

    Most people in the U.S. provide information the federal government can use to track them like a driver’s license, voter registration, payroll taxes and Social Security numbers, debit or credit cards or even email usage.

    Resources available to the Barretos remain a mystery, a family who had eight children and 232 animals living in squalor.

    They apparently had resources: Authorities believe the couple traveled to Guatemala from 2005-2008 to adopt seven children. They also paid $90,000 on Nov. 28, 2008, in New Albany, 10 percent of their combined $900,000 bonds, to leave jail.

    Deputy U.S. Marshal Jamaal Thompson’s years of familiarity with the case gives him ideas of how the pair did it all.

    They sold puppies and pirated DVDs from their cars.

    “They were big-time hustlers,” said Thompson, based in U.S. Marshals Service’s Oxford office.

    But federal law enforcement officers face too many unknowns to have certainty about what kept the Barretos hiding from the law.

    “We don’t know where his connections and money were coming from,” Thompson said.

    Federal and local law enforcement have described them and others who evade arrest as sneaky, cunning and even lucky. But, the government will continue to devote resources to track them down, no matter how long.

    The U.S. Marshals Service 15 Most Wanted List included Janet Barreto until she was found. The list still includes someone on the lam for more than a quarter century.

    Larry Cooper retired in 2003 as a chief deputy U.S. Marshal after serving 26 years with the agency, mostly in Florida but also other parts of the country. He said the nation’s oldest law enforcement agency captures roughly 98 percent of fugitives on the run within a year. However, the remaining 2 percent require patience.

    Cooper, who described his current location as somewhere in southeast Missouri, said poor fugitives often have the best instincts to avoid detection, since many already live outside the mainstream.

    “They’re dealing in cash only,” he said. “They don’t have to give Social Security numbers out to anybody, at least not their own.”

    Others however, make little effort to hide from authorities.

    Cooper once arrested a woman in New York City living in low-income housing overlooking Central Park, who sold clothes out of the trunk of her Cadillac and even owned rental property in North Carolina.

    She had 29 warrants for her arrest.

    “Some of them are lucky, some of them are good,” he said. “But we have a system that’s overloaded.”

    So many accused criminals walking the streets require law enforcement officers to prioritize who receives the most attention and focus at a given moment.

    Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson’s 34 years of law enforcement has convinced him most criminals can’t avoid making a mistake forever, leaving a clue of their identities and whereabouts. Arresting fugitives often can require a tip at just the right time.

    The challenge keeps him and other lawmen searching.

    “You keep punching away and look for that next piece of the puzzle,” he said.

    By Robbie Ward

    Daily Journal

    TUPELO – A pastor, retired educator, business owner and even a modern-day blues musician comprise the group of Ward 3 residents ready to also describe themselves as a local policymaker.

    Candidates for the vacant City Council seat have until today to officially qualify for the Sept. 4 nonpartisan special election to serve out nearly three years left in the term of Jim Newell, who abruptly resigned after moving out of the city.

    A half-dozen likely contenders bring a wide mix diversity in age, professions and other experiences in the local contest to represent the city ward of about 5,300 residents.

    Candidates who have qualified or plan to meet today’s deadline are:

    • Travis Beard, 68, recently retired Milam Elementary School principal and former math teacher and coach.

    • James Hull, 62, a pastor and media consultant.

    • Mike Coutoumanos, 62, a health care professional and former Ward 3 councilman from 1997-2001.

    • Ed Breedlove, 30, an assistant shipping manager at Gibson Corrugated and a singer/songwriter.

    • Derek Russell, 29, director of operations at the Link Centre and owner of an animal care business.

    Also, Lorna Holliday McGee has collected signatures to qualify to seek the office but attempts to reach her have been unsuccessful.

    State law requires the candidates to collect a petition of 50 current registered voters in the city ward as part of paperwork to qualify.

    A single candidate must win at least 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff election on Sept. 18. As the field of candidates grows, chances of avoiding a runoff election shrink.

    A runoff election will prevent the winning candidate from voting on Tupelo’s $32.8 million Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

    State law requires local governments to approve budgets by Sept. 15.

    Ward 3 stretches from the central part of Tupelo near Crosstown and includes neighborhoods in the historic downtown, Gravlee and Mill Village, along with Lee Acres and Audubon.

    The ward also includes the commercial and medical areas along South Gloster and Green streets and extends south to the recently annexed Summit subdivision near Verona.