By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – At recent Tupelo City Council meetings, Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings looked much more calm and relaxed than his colleagues.
Facing no opponent in the May 7 primary or the general election, he has an easy route to re-election.
“Let’s hurry up – I have lots of campaigning to do,” he joked to other council members at Monday’s pre-council meeting at City Hall.
For the rest of the council members, with the exception of mayoral candidate Fred Pitts of Ward 2, the incumbents have two and a half weeks left to knock on doors, glad-hand supporters, kiss babies and otherwise try to woo voters.
While those in office try to convince voters they should stay there, a slate of challengers have plenty of reasons why voters should pick them instead. With Tupelo’s electorate turning away four of the five incumbents who sought re-election in 2009, voters will decide if they like this group any better.
All council races will be decided in the primaries. With Mayor Jack Reed Jr. not running for re-election, mayoral candidates Democrat Jason Shelton and Republican Pitts have no opposition until the general election.
In Tupelo’s form of government, council members collectively set policy for the city and approve or deny the mayor’s appointments for various boards and commissions that help shape policy and activities in areas including the city’s coliseum commission, airport authority and school board.
Among the projects and initiatives enacted by the current council over the past four years are allowing Sunday alcohol sales, renovating city-purchased property to help redevelop struggling neighborhoods, changing much of east Main Street to three lanes, building a new aquatic center projected to cost up to $12 million and relocating the historic Spain house from downtown to Mill Village.
During the current term, the city also won an annexation legal battle with Lee County that resulted in adding about 16 square miles to the city limits and a five-year, $25 million plan to bring municipal services to the newly annexed residents. The annexation added about 2,800 new residents to the city.
With Ward 5 bringing in the bulk of the newly annexed areas, the annexation led Tupelo to redraw ward lines throughout the city. Last week, registered voters in Tupelo’s city limits were sent cards to identify their city ward, voting precinct and location.
Four council seats have a generational divide among candidates, something that has become an issue in the mayor’s race. No matter their age, incumbents say their valuable experience serving in office is a reason to keep them there.
As candidates campaign and discuss why they should be elected, themes are surfacing of improving the Tupelo’s quality of life; redeveloping older, decaying neighborhoods; further supporting public schools; finding ways to encourage more middle-income residents to live in the city and continuing to recruit more businesses and improve the business climate in Tupelo.
While most candidates seem to agree on which issues are important for the community, they disagree on how to achieve the goals.
On the May 7 primary election, voters will choose among the following candidates:
• In the Ward 1 Republican primary, incumbent business owner Markel Whittington, 63, will face fireman and business owner Daniel Owens, 35.
• Republicans Lynn Bryan, 50, a contractor, and Tom Carr, 48, a full-time student and member of the Mississippi Army National Guard, seek the open seat in Ward 2.
• Republican Liz Dawson, 54, community health director at North Mississippi Medical Center, will try to unseat the incumbent in Ward 3, James “Jim” Newell, 54, program director of respiratory care and American government instructor at Itawamba Community College.
• Ward 4 incumbent Nettie Y. Davis, 71, a retired art teacher and community activist, seeks a fourth term and faces in the Democratic primary Mark A. Hardin, 46, a teacher in Columbus, and James Matkin, 30, an armed transport guard.
• Retired grocer Buddy Palmer, 72, will try to unseat Jonny Davis, 48, a private property manager, in the Republican primary.
• In the race with the most candidates, two-term incumbent and insurance business owner Mike Bryan, 49, will face in the Ward 6 Republican primary Tom Hewitt, age withheld, a lay pastor of a Presbyterian church; Wayne Chrestman, age withheld, an independent insurance adjuster; and James “Mickey” Jenkins, 62, a school bus driver and retired fireman.
BEGINNING MONDAY WITH WARD 1, the Daily Journal will publish six
daily stories on each of the contested Tupelo City Council races, accompanied by candidate responses to a questionnaire.