TUPELO – It’s been one year since Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and a largely new City Council took office amid great hope they’d return peace and order to Tupelo government.
Their elections had capped years of growing dissatisfaction among residents who had watched previous city leaders publicly parade their mutual contempt.
By the time residents had cast their votes last year, City Council meetings had become twice-monthly squabbles and the council-mayor relationship was strained, at best.
Reed’s landslide win over a councilwoman in the mayor’s race and the ouster of all but two incumbent council candidates sent a clear message to the current group: Cooperate, or else.
It appears elected officials have listened.
“Tupelo city government has returned to somewhat of the efficient ‘get things done’ city government that you’re used to Tupelo being,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
“It’s not that the previous board and mayor were not concerned about doing good things for Tupelo,” Wiseman said, “but so much of the noise and confrontation have been turned down.”
The new administration took office July 6, and one year later, City Hall is a kinder, gentler place: Council members get along with each other and the mayor; controversies have been kept to a minimum; and officials already can cite a long list of accomplishments.
Among them are a new emphasis on alternative transportation and the formation of four mayor’s task forces to deal with the economy, education, health and neighborhood vitality.
“Overall, I have a sense from my conversations with people that it’s been a year of positive, progressive moving forward for Tupelo,” Reed said from his sunlit office Tuesday on the first floor of City Hall.
His desk, while neat, held various piles of paper that awaited his review or signature.
“The overall sense of the city is positive,” he continued. “And I feel good about that.”
But the new leadership hasn’t been without its hiccups or detractors.
Early in the term, council members faced outrage for passing Sunday beer sales and then, almost immediately afterward, Sunday liquor sales. They also irked some residents by designating the Spain House a historic landmark against the wishes of its owner to spare it from the wrecking ball.
Reed, too, has taken heat. Most recently, he came under fire for his lockdown of City Hall after an incident in which a man brought in a handgun. The north side of the building now remains locked, and visitors must go through police security upon entering the south doors.
Some called the move a knee-jerk reaction to a benign incident.
Reed also has been accused by Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson of trying to force the re-certification of newly rehired Deputy Police Chief Robert Hall. Beyond casual conversations with Johnson on the matter, Reed has denied any involvement with Hall’s recertification.
Robert Hall’s hiring
Flak over Hall’s return to the police force, Reed said, has been the biggest disappointment so far this year.
“I regret that it’s unpopular, but it was very popular with a lot of people, both black and white,” Reed said. “I hope that we can move on.”
Hall, who is black, had resigned from the department in 2007 after pleading guilty to misdemeanors related to his release of a hit-and-run suspect a year earlier.
Fallout from that incident resulted in racial tension, a questionable citywide ethics investigation and a lawsuit against the city by former police Capt. Cliff Hardy.
Hardy claimed police leaders forced him from his job after he publicly denounced their treatment of Hall, which he’d said was harsher than normal because of Hall’s race.
A federal jury last year sided with Hardy, and he won $400,000.
Reed had testified at the trial in Hardy’s behalf soon after having taken office. Months later, two of the police department’s biggest names – and the two most accused by Hardy – resigned. Maj. Ronnie Thomas left in October and Chief Harold Chaffin departed in December.
After a months-long search for Chaffin’s replacement, Reed picked Lee County Jail Administrator Tony Carleton for the job.
It sparked instant controversy.
On the evening of Carleton’s council confirmation, a crowd of African-Americans appeared at City Hall. They included Tupelo attorney Kenneth Mayfield and others who were upset Reed chose a white man and not a minority for the position.
Also upset were several council members who worried that Reed picked Carleton only because the new chief promised to rehire Hall.
Several months later, Carleton picked Hall to resume his former role as deputy chief. The move shocked community members and city leaders alike, with Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan publicly denouncing the move at a televised council meeting.
And though he has been on the job many months, Hall still lacks state certification to carry a weapon. The city says he can do his job without it; Johnson, who serves on the certification board, hinted the city won’t apply because it knows it’ll have a fight on its hands to get it.
Reed said the whole mess saddens him.
“I appointed Chief Tony Carleton because I thought he was clearly the best man to lead our Tupelo Police Department, period,” Reed said. “It’s a shame that people who criticize Chief Carleton’s decision don’t recognize the tremendous contribution Deputy Chief Hall makes to the city.”
At its height, the Hall flap threatened to create irreparable divisions within the council and between the council and mayor. Heated words were exchanged, and people’s feelings got hurt.
But they openly discussed their views with each other and, during what one councilman termed a “come-to-Jesus session,” they vowed not to let it wreck their good record.
“We all learned … what people don’t want from seeing what happened the last two years on the last council,” said council President Fred Pitts. “Even after the rough meetings, we continue to talk to each other and respect each other.”
Pitts said the mayor and council gathered in June 2009 before being sworn into office. They pledged to work well together despite the inevitable disagreements. And they agreed to avoid the common traps.
“I’ve worked hard to keep us focused on things that the council needs to deal with and not on things we don’t control,” Pitts said. “That’s why the previous council got into trouble was sticking their noses into business that was outside their realm of control.”
Wiseman said it’s nearly impossible to avoid conflict or controversy in any form of city government, but it’s especially difficult in the strong-mayor form such as Tupelo’s.
Strong-mayor government establishes the mayor as the executive branch and the council as the legislative branch. The mayor oversees personnel and day-to-day operations, while the council sets policy and handles the purse strings.
That division of power in an unstable relationship can be toxic. For example, the council can’t appoint people to positions, but it can reject the mayor’s appointments.
Likewise, the mayor can refuse to fire an unpopular department head, but the council can undermine that decision by stripping the position’s salary from the budget.
Former two-term Councilman Dick Hill experienced both scenarios during his eight years in office, and said the current group has done a great job in avoiding such conflicts.
“This present council has a better understanding of the roles of the council, administration, business community and the region than maybe the previous councils had,” Hill said Monday while sipping coffee at Joe Joe’s Espresso. “I don’t think this council is overreaching as other councils had, using the power of the purse strings to delve into city matters.”
Current three-term Councilwoman Nettie Davis of Ward 4 has similar accolades for her colleagues, saying it’s been the most peaceful year in office to date.
“It’s been an excellent council,” said Davis. “The mayor has been so good to work with, and his office is always open for suggestions.”
Although Davis is the only female on the council, she no longer holds the role of sole minority. For the first time in history, two African-Americans serve on the board this term.
Willie Jennings of Ward 7 is the other.
Their presence alone nudges Tupelo government toward a more inclusive environment. And while the city isn’t yet color blind, some in the community say it’s the most diverse it’s been in years.
Mayfield, who in the past has criticized the city for its lack of minorities, told the Daily Journal this month he’s proud of Reed and the council so far.
“I think he’s to be commended for his willingness to work with the African-American community and rectify past discriminations,” Mayfield said. “He has missed some opportunities to appoint blacks to high-level positions, but he has done a lot of work to advance the minority community, which is more than I can say for the most recent administrations.”
Among the missed opportunities for high-level minority appointments was that of police chief. Mayfield and others had planned a public denouncement of Carleton’s hiring, but Reed talked them out of it.
“He avoided what could have been an ugly scene during the Robert Hall situation,” Mayfield recalled. “But it’s because of his efforts and his willingness to open the lines of communication” that the minority community didn’t fight it.
Other top-level officials to join the Reed administration include Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris, Communications Director Annabeth Freeman Wyatt, and Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Neal McCoy.
Two interim department heads also became permanent during Reed’s tenure: Sid Russell of the Public Works Department and Thomas Walker of the Fire Department.
And former interim Chief Financial Officer Kim Hanna became city clerk.
All six are white.
The council unanimously confirmed each of those appointments. Wyatt’s hire didn’t need confirmation because she’s not a department head. But two councilmen had voted against the budget amendment to provide salary to that newly created position.
Reed said Wyatt has shown the necessity of that job since then.
“There were council people who have disagreed with that, but it has opened up what happens in the city to the public,” Reed said. “Transparency and getting the word out about the many good things employees doing with tax money we receive … has been very satisfying.”
With Wyatt’s help, Reed has opened City Hall to the public through daily e-mail alerts, regular tweets, Facebook updates and a twice-monthly mayor’s report. City Council meetings are recorded and posted online, along with all agendas and minutes.
And the city will launch a new website soon with enhanced capabilities and easier navigation.
Although the mayor cites safety and solvency as his two main responsibilities, it’s clear that communication and transparency also rank high on the list.
When asked about his proudest achievement to date, though, Reed names his four task forces. Each is led by citizen volunteers who have made concrete efforts to promote health, jobs, education and strong neighborhoods.
“Just the unbelievable work they’ve accomplished by setting up structures to engage the Tupelo Spirit and watching them go,” Reed said, has been the best reward yet.
And like Reed’s administration, the task forces have only just begun.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more, including votes from city council members in today’s NEMS Daily Journal.
Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal