By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Decades ago, peewee football coach Buddy Palmer asked elementary school student Jason Shelton to be a team player for the group that won two consecutive city championships.
In a role reversal, Councilman Palmer delivered Mayor Shelton the winning play in the form of a compromise, sealing a majority City Council vote for the mayor’s first budget, including the controversial creation of an in-house city attorney.
Palmer had previously planned to vote against the budget presented by Shelton but had a change of heart, deciding to give the mayor’s plan a shot. The first-term councilman helped out Shelton, a fellow resident of east Tupelo.
Under Palmer’s compromise, the City Council approved the in-house attorney position for a one-year trial with Tupelo Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris monitoring success of the change. The city will now move from a contract with Mitchell, McNutt & Sams to having a city employee to handle legal affairs.
“If it all works out, we’ll all support it,” Palmer said after the special meeting called for the City Council to pass the Fiscal Year 2014 budget.
Aside from creating the in-house attorney position, Shelton’s budget closely mirrors the current city budget, a $37.1 million document that does not increase taxes or rely on tapping into reserves to balance the city’s checkbook.
The council passed the budget by a 5-2 vote. Along with Palmer, Nettie Davis of Ward 4, Lynn Bryan of Ward 2, Jim Newell of Ward 3 and Willie Jennings of Ward 7 supported the budget. Markel Whittington of Ward 1 and Mike Bryan of Ward 6 voted against it.
Whittington, a small business owner, said he objected to the city’s escalating personnel costs, currently comprising more than 65 percent of the city’s total budget. Whittington continued the analogy of Shelton and the City Council as teammates.
“I certainly want to be a team player,” Whittington said. “But on my team are taxpayers.”
Before voting against the budget, Mike Bryan delivered an impassioned speech in support of Mitchell, McNutt & Sams, which has represented the city for 36 of the last 40 years.
Shelton had said the switch to the in-house attorney could save the city $100,000 annually.
“I don’t see it saving money,” Bryan said. “I believe the current law firm is the best fit for the city of Tupelo right now.”
Shelton’s plan to transition to a full-time city attorney also will involve contracting with an outside firm for $60,000 to assist with overflow work. The mayor said he has been in negotiations with MM&S to accept the contract.
Shelton, an attorney, said this change in city government operations fits into his goal of saving city tax dollars.
“If I didn’t firmly believe it would work, I wouldn’t have advocated for it,” the mayor said after the council passed the budget.
Lynn Bryan, who had previously suggested he would vote against the budget, said he changed his mind to prevent confrontation between the council and the mayor, allowing them to focus on infrastructure, neighborhood redevelopment and other pressing city needs.
Council President Davis asked all council members to support the budget as a sign of unity but didn’t seem fazed by two members voting nay.
“As long as we got five votes, I feel good about it,” she said. “We never get 100 percent on the budget.”
Mike Bryan showed he had no hard feelings toward Shelton after the meeting, patting him on the back.
“He’s got his vision and I’ve got mine,” the councilman said. “We’re not going to agree on everything all the time.”
With the budget passed, Shelton said the process to hire an in-house attorney will begin “immediately.” He said he has no attorney in mind for the position but believes it can be filled by Oct. 1.
Shelton will nominate someone for the attorney position, which must be approved by the City Council. He said he will refocus his attention on filling other city department positions as well.
“It will definitely start within the next two council meetings,” he said.