TUPELO – Beginning Thursday, department heads for the city of Tupelo will be on the watch list.
Mayor Jason Shelton has said he will make announcements beginning in August related to city department head nominations.
With the newly elected mayor evaluating 10 of the city’s appointed department heads, some observers of city government have increased scrutiny of department heads’ actions. For example, Tupelo Police Chief Tony Carleton didn’t attend an agenda review or the City Council meeting last week. Others in the police department attended on his behalf.
What could that mean?
And what about development services director BJ Teal’s house up for sale? Where will she go?
While interest remains high in leaders Shelton will select for his administration, he and current department heads agree that no one should draw conclusions based on coincidences.
Carleton didn’t attend the meetings because he took the week off to travel out of town. As for Teal’s house, she and her husband plan to downsize to a property easier to manage.
“We’ve planned on this for months,” Teal said.
Shelton, Tupelo’s first Democratic mayor in nearly 30 years, isn’t shocked by speculation related to his looming decisions, especially after recalling his experience campaigning for mayor.
“I wouldn’t put any stock in rumors,” Shelton said. “I don’t know a single one I heard during the campaign that was true.”
While no department head has indicated a desire to leave his or her job, historically, new mayors make personnel changes to help shape their administrations, tailored to specific goals. Shelton’s primary campaign theme involved retaining and recruiting more middle-class families to the city. He also mentioned how the city’s commercial and residential codes seemed too restrictive.
With Tupelo’s mayor/council form of government, the mayor nominates most department level employees for City Council approval. After the council approves them, department heads serve at the will of the mayor.
Exceptions include department heads funded through more sources than city tax dollars, said Tupelo city attorney John Hill. Boards and commissions and authorities hire positions such as Josh Abramson, executive director of the Tupelo Airport Authority, and Todd Hunt, director of BancorpSouth Arena.
Among current department heads Shelton has authority to nominate, the median salary is $76,610.
Appointment of department heads is one of the most important decisions during a mayor’s four-year term, said Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government and an expert on municipal government.
“The new mayor of Tupelo has a heavy executive responsibility given to him by state statutes,” Wiseman said. “I wouldn’t want to undertake that without qualified department heads who are loyal to doing the best job as possible.”
Department heads also can appear symbolic for administrations when mayors want a leadership team reflective of the community. When former Mayor Jack Reed Jr. shaped his administration, he asked the City Council to elevate personnel director Cassandra Moore’s position to a department-level position, making her the only African-American to lead a city department at the time.
Based on Shelton’s political support in majority black city wards and the Tupelo’s changing demographics, more racial diversity among city department heads seems natural to political observers.
Members of the black community in Ward 4 literally organized an impromptu parade for Shelton on election day, while Councilwoman Nettie Davis, now council president, campaigned for him.
Data from the 2010 Census showed the black population in the city of 34,546 had increased by more than 31 percent from a decade earlier, to 12,709.
“It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see more than one African-American department head,” Wiseman said.
Until Shelton announces his decisions on department heads and his other appointments, city employees and others continue to wait. Shelton, an attorney, also will decide how legal work for the city is handled.
The law firm of Mitchell McNutt and Sams has contracted with the city of Tupelo to handle legal work for 36 out of 40 years since 1973. Hill, a member of the firm, said he would like that to continue. Like department heads with the city, he waits for Shelton to make up his mind.
“There’s been some talk but I don’t think a decision has been made,” Hill said.