By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – He crafted a balanced budget without dipping into city reserves, assembled a team of department heads approved by the City Council and gave public school kids high-fives on Fridays.
Three months into his first term as Tupelo mayor, Jason Shelton even found time to unlock the front door of City Hall.
A Democrat who voted for a libertarian presidential candidate, Shelton entered his first public office with nearly a 60 percent margin of victory. So far, he’s kept supporters rooting for him and started winning over skeptics.
Shelton, 37, a soft-spoken populist, campaigned on opening the front doors of City Hall literally and figuratively. (The locked front door dates to a man entering the building with a gun a couple years ago and asking to speak with the mayor.) Shelton wants a city government friendlier and more responsive to the public.
Even before Shelton officially took office, he took a firm stand against a nightclub ordinance he considered overreaching and unnecessary.
“I want the attitude of City Hall to start with yes,” he said during an interview with the Daily Journal last week. “We should start with how do we make things happen.”
Looking around his office, Shelton has settled into the place. He has a zoning map posted on the wall and an honorary Elvis sash on display.
Shelton still talks about campaign promises during meetings with the City Council and the public. Politics and fundraising return to the mayor’s focus this week as he holds a fundraiser to help retire about $15,000 in outstanding campaign debt, mostly loans to himself. Shelton has pages of accomplishments he’ll share at the fundraiser.
But his time in office hasn’t all been rosy.
One of the hardest fights so far in office was convincing the City Council to switch to an in-house attorney instead of contracting with an outside law firm for legal services. Shelton believes it will save money, but some council members remain skeptical.
During debate related to the city’s attorney, Shelton experienced his first public spats with City Council members. Ward 2 Councilman Lynn Bryan wrote a column in the Daily Journal criticizing Shelton’s comments about council members. Bryan declined to discuss the conflict further. Shelton said he believes each councilman has the best interests of the city in mind but still doesn’t understand why creating the position caused such a kerfuffle.
“I underestimated the amount of debate that would go into the in-house attorney position,” he said. “It seemed like an obvious way to save money to me.”
As part of an agreement to support the new position, City Council members will evaluate legal expenses quarterly. Former Tupelo alderman and current Sherman Mayor Ben Logan was hired for the position.
Shelton’s administration also includes a new police chief, Bart Aguirre, who is Hispanic, and a city judge, Willie Allen, who is black. Another change in the administration, Shelton promoted parks and recreation director Don Lewis to chief operations officer. Lewis is white.
Parks and Recreation and Public Works now operate under interim leadership, Alex Farned and Chuck Williams, respectively.
Shelton supporter Jim Casey, active in the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the AARP, complimented the mayor’s attention to diversity in city appointments. A supporter of a public transportation system in Tupelo, Casey said he also appreciates the mayor’s openness to listen to many ideas.
“He’s approachable and a good listener and knows he has his work cut out for him,” Casey said.
Greg Pirkle, a Tupelo attorney and supporter of Shelton’s opponent during the general election, agrees. Pirkle gives Shelton high marks for setting policies that seem positive for the city and making himself accessible and available to the public.
“His open-door policy has been literal, including people of different interests and political thought,” Pirkle said.
As the mayor moves forward into his term, he and City Council members will likely have more disagreements related to policy. Shelton opposes additional neighborhood redevelopment projects similar to the nearly $3 million effort to improve blighted areas along West Jackson Street.
“I feel strongly that the city of Tupelo doesn’t need to be in the real estate business,” Shelton said. “The buying and selling of property is exactly that.”
However, Shelton supports other ways to improve neighborhood development, such as tax credits and abatements for property owners who make improvements. Shelton also talks about wanting to instill neighborhood pride, something that costs little money.
“I think we can get there with that approach,” he said.
Shelton said he plans to live up to his self-described title of a “fiscal conservative.” With city reserves at about $18.2 million uncommitted to anything, some council members want to use funds for neighborhood revitalization and other community investments. Shelton has started discussions with the city’s finance team to pursue reserves to pay down the city’s $30 million in general fund debt. Then the mayor would use money that would have gone to debt payments to help fund the city’s capital budget.
Shelton said now that his administration is in place, he looks forward to digging into efforts to make the city a more attractive place for middle-income residents to live.
“Now we can get into substantive issues facing our city,” he said. “We have a really good team of experience and fresh perspectives.”