By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Tupelo Development Services director B.J. Teal will leave her job next week, citing among her reasons philosophical differences with Mayor Jason Shelton over the city’s approach to reversing neighborhood blight.
Teal confirmed Thursday her plans to return to Montgomery, Ala., where she and her husband met, married and still own a house. She mentioned personal and health reasons for leaving her job, but she also shared a “lot of difference of philosophy” with Shelton’s more hands-off approach to revitalizing struggling city neighborhoods.
Teal’s last official day with the city will be Nov. 18.
Shelton told the Daily Journal last week that he supports the West Jackson Street redevelopment effort but strongly opposes future revitalization efforts that involve using city tax dollars to purchase real estate. He favors tax credits and tax abatement incentives for redevelopment.
He also said he didn’t have a specific plan or timetable in mind for his vision to improve blight in the city.
“That was pretty discouraging,” Teal said. “At my age, I’m tired of fighting battles. If I’m not moving forward with support, I have so many other opportunities.”
At close to 70 years old, she took another option rather than continue working for Shelton. Teal said she will continue freelance work related to historic preservation and restoration design work.
Before working in Tupelo, Teal served as director of development services in Florence County, S.C., and Collierville, Tenn.
Teal was hired five years ago and moved to Tupelo during Mayor Ed Neelly’s administration under the title of special assistant to the mayor for planning development. She was hired during a time of increased worry about lack of desirable, affordable housing in the city.
She continued in Mayor Jack Reed Jr.’s administration as director of development services and was appointed by Shelton to continue in the position.
Through three administrations, Teal said affordable, desirable housing for middle-income residents remains elusive. She mentioned the 2008 housing study that led to former Mayor Neelly creating the position that brought her to the city and said the city had a “lack of vision 15 years ago” that continues to allow neighborhood decline.
“I feel like I did as much as I could to move Tupelo foward,” she said. “It’s up to the powers that be to either do it or let Tupelo go into further demise.”
In a news release distributed by the city of Tupelo communication director, Shelton praised Teal and credited her services as having a “major impact on the future of the city.”
Responding to Teal’s criticisms, Shelton said he has made no secret that he campaigned for mayor earlier this year on a platform of less government and fiscal restraint.
“I share her concerns about the future for the city of Tupelo,” Shelton said. “Hopefully, some of the programs she put into place will help alleviate these issues. At the same time, I ran a campaign of fiscal conservatism and limited role of government and I stand by that.”
Teal’s departure marks the fifth appointed position of department-head level change since Shelton took office in July. He also pushed for creation of an in-house city attorney, changing from contracting with a Tupelo law firm.
As for the Department of Development Services, Shelton said he hasn’t identified an interim leader but said city planner Pat Falkner is a “likely candidate.” Shelton said he conceives of the permanent replacement for the department head to focus more on economic development to “promote our local economy and work hand-in-hand with the (Community Development Foundation.)”
However, the mayor said his priority now continues to focus on naming a Tupelo Public School District board member, a vacancy created after board member Beth Stone resigned earlier this month.
Former mayors Neelly and Jack Reed both offered praise for Teal.
“I would value her opinions and always did when I was mayor,” Neelly said. “It’s a tough job always when you’re in public service and everybody wants you to say yes to what they want to do.”