Tupelo pushes on minority hiring

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

Department Total employees Minorities
City Council 10 1
Executive 6 1
City Court 14 5
Budget & Accounting 9 1
Human Resources 3 2
Planning 21 7
Police 129 22
Fire 91 10
Public Works 72 16
Parks & Recreation 28 9
Tourism 9 1
Bancorp South Arena 8 2
W&L Collections 13 2
Water & Light 66 11
Total 479 90
SOURCE: City of Tupelo

TUPELO – When the new mayor and City Council take office next month, they’ll inherit a work force of nearly 500 municipal employees.
And like their predecessors, elected officials likely will face pressure to make the work force as racially diverse as the city’s own resident population.
As it stands, that effort hasn’t panned out – at least, not since the early 1990s.
To date, the city employs 479 full-time workers, of whom 90 are minorities. That’s 18.7 percent.
It’s a slight increase from last spring when the municipality had a precise 18 percent minority representation in its ranks. But it’s well below Tupelo’s overall minority population of 30 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Although the city doesn’t have a defined target for minority employment numbers, it does try to hire as many as possible, said Contanna Purnell, assistant human resources manager.
But like most employers, Tupelo hires only applicants who have completed high school or the equivalent.
According the census, though, the number of high-school educated minorities is 18 percent of the city’s total resident population.
“We’re trying to recruit more qualified minorities,” Purnell said. “We are trying to work hard on our recruitment process to give our city departments the best applicants to choose from on a minority basis.”
The city is an equal-opportunity employer but hasn’t had an affirmative-action plan since 2000. When it did, its minority-employment goal was 21 percent, which it met or exceeded nearly every year.
It had its best record in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But the total number of minorities in the work force isn’t the only concern; it’s also what kind of positions they get. A common complaint in Tupelo is its lack of minorities in senior-level positions.
Today, the city has no minority department heads, although Human Resources Manager Cassandra Moore, who is black, does oversee her three-person department.
The municipality is seeking a director for that department, and Moore – along with Purnell, who is also black – both applied for that position.
Incoming officials, especially Mayor-elect Jack Reed Jr., will have an opportunity to change the demographics almost immediately.
Right now, the city lacks three permanent department heads, not including the open position in Human Resources. The Public Works, Finance and Fire departments are all managed by interim directors – all of whom are white.
It will be Reed’s job to either appoint those interims as permanent directors or to select new ones from a pool of applicants. The council gets to vote on whomever Reed picks.
In his bid for election earlier this year, Reed said he wants a more diverse municipal work force and knows people of all races who could contribute greatly to the city.
Reed reiterated that sentiment when contacted Wednesday by the Daily Journal.
“I stand by what I said and intend to do the very best I can to have our city work force be representative of our city population,” Reed said. “People have trusted me to do my best on that given my background on what I hope is seen as an inclusive creative person.”
But it won’t necessarily be easy. Outgoing Mayor Ed Neelly has commented numerous times on the subject, often expressing the same frustration.
“Of course you’d like your employees to reflect the racial makeup of the city,” Neelly said during an earlier interview.
“But how many of them are of an employable age? How many are already employed elsewhere? So, from the available pool of people, maybe 20 percent is not bad.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.