MAYOR: Voices of experience

TUPELO – A good mayor, apparently, must know how to handle loose dogs.
It also helps to know how to balance a budget, manage a work force, woo industries, lobby lawmakers, build infrastructure and communicate with the public.
The mayor’s job is no small task, especially in a growing city like Tupelo. Whoever assumes the role after the June 2 general election will oversee not only the largest municipality in the region, but also a host of issues.
Among them: a pending annexation, a potential investigation by the state auditor and an uncertain economy.
It’s a tough responsibility, but four of Tupelo’s past two dozen mayors said it’s one that was well worth the paycheck.
“Being mayor of Tupelo is probably one of the most rewarding experiences that an individual can have,” said Larry Otis, who served from 2000 to 2005.
“It was one of highlights of my life, as far as being able to contribute something to the community and being involved at a level I never thought I’d have the opportunity.”
But back to the loose dogs.
Since its ragtag start in the 1800s, Tupelo apparently has struggled with roaming Rovers.
Its first mention came during the term of Mayor John C. Williams, who served from 1874 to 1877. According to an old newspaper record, “the mayor and board usually met once a month to settle petty complaints, often about the dogs and pigs that roamed through town.”
Descendants of those mammals continued their prowl into the next two centuries, dogging many a mayor as they went.
Clyde Whitaker, who served from 1973 to 1981, said nothing distracted him from big projects more than the steady stream of dog complaints.
“Dogs by far, I’d get the most calls about dogs than anything else,” said Whitaker, who owns Whitaker Realty in Tupelo. “You can pass a budget that affects everyone in the city, and no one calls. One dog bites somebody, and the board room will be full.”
Current Mayor Ed Neelly also has talked about fielding dog-related calls. He recently called it one of the top concerns among residents during his four-year tenure.
Neelly will step down in July after deciding not to seek re-election.
The chasm between Williams and Neelly covers 135 years. The city’s population has grown from roughly 600 then to about 35,000 now, and the area has attracted industries, schools and medical facilities.
The mayor presides over all of this. And yet dogs continue to consume an inordinate amount of time.
Whitaker said that’s the nature of the job. A mayor is a dreamer by nature, someone who thinks big and plans long-term, he said. But those plans often take a back seat to the daily chores of dealing with a bustling city and its many residents.
“The job is intense,” said Glenn McCullough Jr., who served from 1997 to 1999 and left mid-term to take a job on the Tennessee Valley Authority board. “There is not a lot of down time.”
Not much routine, either, he said. Every day requires a different role.
One day, the mayor presides over a department head meeting.
The next, he’s talking to legislators in Jackson.
Then, he’s giving a speech to a local veterans group.
The next day might be spent reviewing the municipal budget – or taking calls about loose dogs.
And the next, he’s negotiating with the City Council.
The mayor’s relationship with the City Council has changed over the years, but it’s rarely been smooth.
Since 1993, Tupelo has operated under the strong-mayor form of government: The mayor acts as the executive branch, with the council serving in a legislative role.
It divides power but provokes conflicts.
Neelly discovered that quickly: “I was surprised to find out that government doesn’t operate exactly like business,” Neelly said. “In business, you make a decision and go forth with it and you don’t have a lot of dissension and pettiness and personal agendas. That was disheartening.”
Otis also suffered that fate: “Toward the end of my term, the council began to take on a role of trying to control the city functions through the budget, and that was an unfortunate experience. It takes the strong mayor form of government to a lower level … .”
Both Otis and Neelly urged the next mayor and council to seek cooperation.
Before 1993, the municipality had a weak-mayor form of government, where the board of aldermen possessed both the executive and legislative powers, and the mayor was stripped of any great authority.
Although he wasn’t yet mayor, McCullough was one of the main proponents of switching from weak to strong.
Whitaker led the charge for another big change, and he said it cost him a third term.
He voted in 1980 to end the elections of city department heads and make them regular hired positions. Before that, residents voted for the road commissioner, police chief and other top jobs at City Hall.
Now the mayor oversees all department heads, plus the roughly 500 other employees in the municipality.
He doesn’t have the council or the public to blame in case of personnel problems, said Marty Wiseman, executive director of Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
“You’re given statutory authority to manage the day-to-day operations of the city, and it is a dynamic city,” Wiseman said. “That means the citizens have to do their part in electing a highly qualified person to be mayor. You could get in a real mess if you elected someone not up to the task. It is a multifaceted, multimillion-dollar operation that person will be sitting at the controls of.”
And besides the City Council, hundreds of employees and countless errant canines, Tupelo’s next mayor also must deal with a pending annexation case and the fallout from a controversial ethics study.
The city filed a petition last year to take 16.15 square miles of Lee County territory, but the county is opposing.
Tupelo’s last attempt at annexation, which started in Otis’ administration, sparked a costly court battle with the county that ended without municipal growth. This is round two.
The ethics study ended in September with a lengthy report accusing the city of misdeeds and illegal activity.
The current administration has done little with the report except to give it to the Office of the State Auditor. Many hope the agency will launch an investigation into the report’s allegations.
If that happens, it likely will occur during the next mayor’s term.
Neither of these issues seem pleasant, but the mayor’s job does have some bright spots.
Whitaker said he was delighted to have helped the Tupelo Regional Airport expand. McCullough and Otis were pleased to help develop the Fairpark District.
Neelly said he’s fond of the new baseball complex built during his administration.
“One of the best parts of the job,” McCullough said, “is the opportunity to rally around opportunities … and bring the community together.”
One of four mayoral hopefuls running in this election will have a chance to do just that. Democrats Kentrel Boyd and Doyce Deas will face off in the May 5 primary. So will Republicans James R. Presley and Jack Reed Jr.
Boyd is a former school resource officer; Deas is an at-large city councilwoman and president of the Learning Skills Center; Presley is the branch manager of Mid South Machinery; Reed is the president of the R.W. Reed Co.
All but Boyd are first-time mayoral candidates.
The winners of the primary will advance to the June 2 general election, where voters will pick their next mayor – and their next dog catcher.
That person might as well start practicing patience now, said Wiseman.
“To many people, municipal government is the entry level to the entire level system – most will never go to Congress or even to the state legislature to try to get them to pass a law, but you can go to City Hall and go to council meetings,” Wiseman said. “So if you don’t like dealing with people who might have opinions contrary to yours, you probably ought not be running for mayor.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

Emily LeCoz/Daily Journal