Tupelo’s municipal primary elections two weeks from today begin the process of electing the city’s government for the 2009-2013 term, and every position is contested.
The start Monday of a week-long series by staff writer Emily LeCoz on the seven City Council wards and constituent concerns, and her article on the perspectives of retiring Mayor Ed Neelly and three former mayors, provide background on the election for voters and candidates.
In addition, on April 27 Tupelo readers of the Daily Journal will receive a special section with candidates’ answers to an issues questionnaire and other election information.
As Monday’s article about Ward 1 and today’s story about Ward 2 show, the City Council’s electoral districts have distinctive political personalities and concerns similar to legislative, congressional and supervisory districts. Their political distinctives support the saying that “all politics is local.”
Yet, even with particular concerns like road closures, drainage issues, and street maintenance, large themes bind the wards, creating citywide concerns like public protection, zoning, and effective development policies.
That is the point of interconnection between the City Council and the mayor’s office, and it is also where an important distinction must be made between the functions of both positions.
After long study and planning by a citizens commission, the voters overwhelmingly approved changing Tupelo’s form of government in 1993 from weak mayor-Board of Aldermen to strong mayor-City Council. In sum, the change made clearer the lines between executive function, vested in the mayor, and legislative function, vested in the City Council.
Years of dissatisfaction with the mayor-board form preceded the study commission and vote. In addition, Tupelo for a long period elected virtually every position, including street commissioner, police chief and public works director. That system created politically competing spheres of influence without adequate executive checks and balances.
Neelly and former mayors Glenn McCullough, Jr., and Larry Otis noted the difficulty of dealing with a City Council that seeks to reach beyond its defined role.
City Council positions aren’t mini-mayor offices. The council’s function is formulating and acting on citywide policies and initiatives, ideally working closely with the mayor; disposing of executive nominations; approving and sometimes amending proposed budgets; and levying taxes to support city government’s obligations. It does not have executive powers. Council candidates who seek to become mayor should run for mayor, not the council.
Differences of opinion, some serious, are expected. Voters also elect officials with the expectation that differences can be resolved – divorced from personality and political ambition – for the good of the city. Tupelo needs a renewal of that understanding.