TUPELO – Nearly one in 10 city residents can vote this week to pick a new voice in local government – three years sooner than expected.
Tupelo’s 3,457 registered voters of Ward 3 can thank one of Saltillo’s newest homeowners for a chance to vote twice in 14 months for a City Council member. They’ll determine who among them will decide how to spend $57.6 million in taxpayer money by Sept 30, 2015, and repeat the process two more times.
Jim Newell’s packing up and moving from 1511 Audubon Drive with his wife Annis, and dog Sophie necessitated the special election Thursday. The twice-elected councilman could technically remain in office since he owns a condo on Winwood Cove. Instead, he resigned four weeks ago to let someone living in Tupelo represent his former neighbors.
Ward 3’s population and personality crosses economic, racial and cultural spectrums. City expansion through annexation in 2012 added the Summit, a high-dollar development bumping next to Verona. The backbones of Ward 3, South Gloster Street and nearby streets, have a mix of industrial and commercial properties. Ward 3 also has the mothership of North Mississippi Health Services, the nation’s largest rural health care system.
But the major thoroughfare also makes room to the south for businesses looking worn and tired.
Recent completion of Highway 6 connecting South Gloster brings optimism for commercial upturn.
Saddled up nearby, neighborhoods like Lee Acres, Audubon and Colonial Hills spread east and west from Lawndale Drive.
Ballots for the nonpartisan election Thursday will list seven candidates ready to represent the area. Age differences stretch 39 years wide between the group, but no generational divide can shake their agreement that less than three weeks to campaign in Mississippi heat isn’t an ideal political campaign.
The abbreviated, low-key election limits most residents learning much about candidates’ positions on complicated topics like trimming city personnel costs and deciding to fund a public transportation system.
More than half of the candidates don’t know where they stand on the issues either. Political races usually allow politicians time to study issues, develop campaign platforms and convincing solutions to present to future constituents. The election four days away culminates what seems to the candidates like a game of political speed chess.
However, they all take firm positions to protect neighborhoods throughout the ward.
Fillmore Drive resident Walter W. Burns, 67, a retired employee with the Tupelo Public School District, knows little about any of the candidates. But he does know they better keep his neighborhood the way he likes it.
“We’ve got good neighbors and watch out for each other,” he said.
The candidates echo Newell’s state mission to reverse neighborhood trends of growing rental properties, lax property upkeep and potential for more crime. They emphasize a need for increased city code enforcement and other taxpayer resources to maintain stable neighborhoods and revitalize the significant areas ready for a comeback.
• Lorna Holliday-McGee, 61, believes her role as Audubon Neighborhood Association vice president shows more than talk fighting growing blight and helping boost pride. Holliday-McGee’s family connects her for five generations to Lee County, but she was born in Chicago, something she views as a strength.
“I’ve seen when people stop caring about a community and what happens to it,” she said. “But I’ve also seen the other side, when grassroots community organizers turn a community around.”
Holliday-McGee also wants the city to better reflect demographics related to women, older residents and people from other cultures and locations. Her diversity campaign would include adding another woman and black person to the City Council.
• James “Jim” Pitts, 65, spends his days as a warehouse technician at Comcast and has never run for office, like most others seeking the council seat. He pledges to devote a work ethic learned as a young boy picking cotton in rural Tennessee to find solutions to encourage homeowners back to vacant properties he sees in the Lee Acres neighborhood and strengthen other vulnerable areas.
“Any kind of way you look at it, we’re the heart of Tupelo,” Pitts said. “If you don’t take care of the heart, the whole body dies.”
Pitts said he grew up poor, worked his way into a middle-class life and understands what’s at stake when a few houses with overgrown lawns and broken shutters grow in numbers over time.
“The problem we have now is we need to fix it before it turns into more problems,” he said.
• Unlike all other candidates, Mike Coutoumanos, 62, has thought about winning a seat on the City Council since 2001, when he lost a race for re-election after serving a four-year term. A health care professional, Coutoumanos said he loves to fix things and help others. Devoting priorities to neighborhoods and area businesses, the part-time school bus driver and former nurse wants CPR performed on the city’s traffic lights system, each often seeming out of sync with the rest.
“We have no traffic management,” he said. “My first thing would be to go to Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern to see if they can do anything to help with their resources.”
• Ed Breedlove, 30, an assistant shipping manager at Gibson Corrugated, sees the City Council as a way to repay the community that helped his family during his childhood, when a local nonprofit organization and others helped his mother leave an abusive husband. A musician and songwriter, Breedlove wants to help write Tupelo’s next chapter, emphasizing support for South Gloster businesses and strengthened code enforcement and finding other tools to keep residents feeling safe in their own homes and neighborhoods.
“We have to make sure our communities are not deteriorating to the point where they’re not worthy of investing,” he said.
He also supports a quiet zone along city railroad crossings, an idea put on hold about year ago due to costs associated with required safety measures.
• James Hull, 62, preaches, publicizes and has now returned to politicking. The West Point native and minister at an Oxford church worked for WTVA for years before focusing on media and political consulting. He said he’ll work to improve businesses and communities in the area. Hull touts quality-of-life issues as central to his campaign, including promoting home-ownership efforts in neighborhoods with high rental and vacancy rates.
“There’s a much more close-knit community when you have homeownership,” he said.
• Travis Beard, 68, said he’ll leverage his 44 years as a teacher, coach and principal to help resolve Ward 3 issues. But don’t expect him to make major announcements or lofty promises prior to the election. One issue requires no additional consideration for the retired principal of Milam Middle School – how much neighborhoods mean to thousands of people who live in the area. He asks voters to believe in his reputation and track record for success.
“I’d like to think they’d look at me as an honest person, someone they can trust,” Beard said. “I’m not a politician.”
• Derek Russell, 29, wants to assist the City Council with existing efforts to enhance the city until he identifies the best opportunities to make a difference through public service. As a business owner and director of operations at nonprofit Link Centre, Russell understands the balance of providing needs and having to pay for them. He also believes efforts by relatively younger elected officials like Mayor Jason Shelton help bring energy to local government.
“At some point, a younger generation has to be part of what makes a city work and what helps the people,” he said.
Few, if any, candidates believe any of them will receive the more than 50 percent of votes necessary to avoid a runoff election on Sept. 18. Even if a candidate wins outright Thursday, he or she would have little time to fully understand local government expenses and revenues involved in the upcoming city budget vote. Besides, the current six council members all plan to support the budget.
The key vote for the new council member could involve public transportation. Currently, the council seems deadlocked – three opposed and three in support.
Three of the seven candidates, Breedlove, Hull and Holiday-McGee each pledge support for public transit. Pitts, Beard and Coutoumanos each gave conditional support but said they needed more details.
“I think a lot of those decisions will be tough,” Russell said. “But you have to be a voice.”