Tupelo leaders narrowly avoid a repeat mistake

By Emily Le Coz / NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The City Council last week skirted the kind of political pitfall that had ensnared its previous members in late 2006.
But just barely.
What they did was question the independent selection of an engineer for a major municipal road project. But while the prior council blocked the independent pick, the current group ultimately approved it.
For a while, though, its members appeared dangerously close to repeating the mistakes of their predecessors – mistakes that launched the long and bitter disintegration of a once unified front.
In 2006, the council was asked to approve Tupelo-based Engineering Solutions Inc. to design $20 million worth of road projects in the next five-year phase of the Major Thoroughfare Program.
The program is a taxpayer-funded initiative to improve the city’s traffic flow by widening and building streets.
Its oversight committee had picked ESI after an independently appointed group reviewed and rated applicants. ESI had come out on top. But several council members questioned the fairness of the selection process, and alleged a bias on the part of some committee appointees.
They claimed Cook Coggin Engineers, also of Tupelo, should win the contract – not ESI.
A heated battle ensued, pitting council members against their peers and the council as a whole against the mayor and the Major Thoroughfare Committee.
It dragged on for weeks and threatened the future of the Major Thoroughfare Program, as well as other citizen-volunteer groups working for the city.
It wasn’t until the committee offered a compromise that the smoke cleared: Split the contract, with ESI and Cook Coggin sharing half the workload.
The council approved the deal, but the damage had been done. Members never repaired internal relations, nor did they re-establish sound footing with the mayor. The rift plagued the council and administration until the end of their four-year term in July 2009.
Many of those in office lost re-election to opponents who promised a fresh start at City Hall. They vowed to avoid the errors of incumbents.
Those vows were tested last week when the Downtown Tupelo Main Street Association asked the council to approve its engineering pick for a $2.9 million road project. Its selection, based on the outcome of an independently appointed committee, was ESI.
The firm was chosen from a pool of five companies, including Cook Coggin.
DTMSA needed city approval because they’re partners in the project, which will improve a stretch of Main Street from downtown to the Elvis Presley Birthplace.
Council members immediately questioned the engineering selection process – its fairness, its methods and why its members were appointed.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. had appointed the members. They were DTMSA Executive Director Debbie Brangenberg, City Chief Operations Officer Darrell Smith and Development Services Director BJ Teal. City Engineer John Crawley tabulated the results.
And the group followed scoring guidelines provided by the state Department of Transportation, which is funding 80 percent of the project.
But behind-the-scenes doubts about the legitimacy of the process – if not the entire project itself – bore striking resemblance to the discussions that preceded the previous fiasco. And for a while, they almost delayed the council’s timely approval of the engineering firm.
The issue originally was omitted from the council’s Jan. 18 agenda because members voiced too many concerns and passage appeared unlikely.
But a series of meetings between council President Fred Pitts and individual members eased internal conflict. The issue was added to the agenda at the meeting’s debut and ultimately passed 6-1, with Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell the sole opponent.
“I can’t say that it wasn’t on my mind and didn’t want us to go down the same slippery slope” as the previous council, Pitts told the Daily Journal on Friday. “But I was more concerned about the project and what it means to Tupelo to have the gateway to our community, particularly as it leads to the Elvis Presley Birthplace, look nicer than it does today.”
Pitts also said he worried about losing MDOT money and souring the state’s view of Tupelo. Had the city opted against ESI, MDOT wouldn’t have paid the project’s engineering costs. It also might avoid funding future projects here, Pitts said.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@journalinc.com.