Tupelo Mayor Neelly's term coming to an end

Ed Neelly’s political highlights
Numerous major events and milestones marked the four-year administration of Mayor Ed Neelly. These are just a few.
* Construction of a nine-field baseball complex, a wastewater-treatment facility, a splash park and a veterans memorial
* Completion of a major drainage project in Haven Acres
* Passage of a citywide smoking ban
* Renewal of the Major Thoroughfare Program for a fourth phase
* Announcement that Toyota will build a major manufacturing facility in nearby Blue Springs
* Launch and completion of a study into the city’s ethical standards and conduct
* Creation of the city Housing Commission, Quality of Life Committee and a new license-rental fee program
* Establishment of a curbside recycling program
* Improving South Thomas Street and Lakeshire Drive
* Adoption of the city’s new comprehensive plan

TUPELO – Ed Neelly presided over one of the most contentious terms in recent city history while, at the same time, overseeing some of Tupelo’s grandest achievements.
The roller-coaster ride of his administration dipped and turned, climbed and looped through an expansive political terrain. It was sometimes thrilling, sometimes scary, but rarely dull.
And now that the ride is almost over – Neelly leaves office July 5 – the 69-year-old said he’s generally pleased with his four years as mayor.
“There are a lot of things we can be proud of,” he said about himself, his staff and the City Council. “We have made a lot of accomplishments, and we tend to forget the things we worked on together.”
Neelly rattled off a list of municipal achievements that included major road projects, the construction of a new baseball complex, passage of a citywide smoking ban and implementation of a curbside recycling program.
He also mentioned Toyota’s announcement to build a major manufacturing plant in nearby Blue Springs, which could benefit Tupelo and the surrounding region.
Although the city didn’t lure Toyota, it cooperated extensively with those who did – the PUL Alliance and Community Development Foundation.
His proudest accomplishment, though, was repairing Oakview Drive, a narrow road winding through east Tupelo.
“The first time I ran for City Council, people complained to me about that street, a terrible, narrow little street,” said Neelly, who served four years as an at-large councilman before running for mayor. It was finally improved during his administration.
“It took awhile to get it fixed, but if you drive down there now, it’s been widened.”
Neelly decided not to seek a second term as mayor.
On Tuesday, he reminisced about his public service from his spacious office at City Hall. As usual, it was organized and clean. And he was dressed casually, in slacks and a short-sleeve shirt.
Before politics, Neelly was chief executive officer of The Peoples Bank amp& Trust Co., now Renasant Bank. He also formerly played trombone in a band.
But the mayor traded his horn for a pottery wheel long ago. He did, however, keep his soft and slow Southern drawl and his ever-present smile. Neelly almost always smiles, even when discussing unpleasant topics, such as some of the conflicts that plagued his tenure.
Neelly conceded his term had its rough patches. He routinely butted heads with the City Council, some of whose members openly disliked the mayor.
They squabbled over board and committee appointments, the search for a new police headquarters, the selection of a Major Thoroughfare Program engineer and a citywide ethics study.
The ethics study was launched in 2006 to examine fairness in municipal hiring and firing practices. But it immediately spiraled into controversy. Neelly and his administration vocally questioned the hired ethics consultant, Cindy Brown, who in turn, publicly criticized him and his staff.
A final report was delivered in September, months behind schedule, and costing taxpayers an estimated $140,000.
It was sent to the Office of the State Auditor, which announced earlier this month it would not investigate any allegations detailed therein.
“The deepest regret I have is that we hurried into this thing with Cindy Brown without anybody asking for her qualifications” until she after she had a contract, Neelly told the Daily Journal this week. “We got into a situation with a person who was evidently unqualified who I don’t think had ever done anything like this in her life.
“If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t say, ‘Darn it, let’s check her references.'”
But Brown wasn’t the only woman to get under Neelly’s skin. Former Chief Financial Officer Daphne Holcombe also rattled his cage because, according to Neelly, she talked too much and because “she has a special talent for getting people all stirred up.”
In January, Neelly fired Holcombe after she refused to resign. She sued him and the city, but the matter was settled this month when the city agreed to pay Holcombe $150,000 and her attorneys $50,000.
The settlement “was the council’s decision, not mine,” Neelly said this week. And beyond saying he did nothing wrong, the mayor declined to comment further on the matter.
Asked what he’ll miss most about public service, Neelly quickly said “the people.” As chief executive of the city, the mayor worked with a staff of nearly 500 employees, as well as some 200 volunteer residents who served on various municipal boards and committees.
He also dealt directly with many of the more than 35,000 residents who live in Tupelo.
“I’ll miss the telephone calls, which I get a lot of,” Neelly said. “I’ll miss helping people with the various little problems they have, problems which to them seem insurmountable but that, with a little help, we can solve together.”
And Neelly said he’ll miss the parades, the ceremonies, the speeches and the ribbon cuttings he’s often asked to attend.
At one point, the mayor opened his desk drawer and retrieved a bundle of ribbon fragments held together with a clip. There were hundreds – reds and blues, yellows and plaid, each identified with a date and the name of a business or organization Neelly ceremoniously opened.
“I saved each and every one,” Neelly said.
With his term drawing to an end, the mayor said he looks forward to the free time retirement will provide. Neelly said he’ll travel with his wife, Claudia, take his grandchildren to the family’s Pickwick cabin, read a few books and “crank up the pottery wheel.”
Making pottery “is relaxing,” said Neelly, who has enjoyed the hobby for years. “I’ve always liked it. And the best part about it is if you mess up, you just take the clay off the wheel, grab some more, and start over again.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal