Campaign offers Tupelo a chance for self-correction

This is an opinion column appearing in the Daily Journal on March 8. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

The qualifying deadline has passed and the field is set. Have you noticed a developing theme in the Tupelo city elections?
If the candidates are reflective of the public mood, there’s a desire for change in the way business is conducted at City Hall. Almost all the candidates – including incumbents – have emphasized a desire for greater collaboration and less factionalism in city government.
It’s an on-target assessment of a widespread public perception that the tenor of political debate and decision-making in the last four years has not been worthy of Tupelo’s image of itself.
A cautionary note here: There’s nothing in the “Tupelo Story” that suggests everybody should agree on everything, or that public disagreement is a sin. What is an important element of the history and civic culture of Tupelo is the notion that disagreements should be worked out in a civil way with personal or political agendas not getting in the way of consensus-building for the common good.
Sometimes there is an overabundance of caution about airing disagreements. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Instead, it’s the way those disagreements have played out, or where they may have come from in the first place.
One element of a healthy community is that people judge ideas based on their merit rather than on who proposes them or who gets the credit. Vaughn Grisham has noted this in some of his writings about Tupelo as a key element to the community’s success through the years.
Factionalism erodes that approach and encourages deciding issues based on personalities or power struggles. We’ve seen that within the City Council in recent years, and in the relationship between the council and mayor.
The arguments that have flared have sometimes been more about power than principle. That seems clear.
They haven’t been partisan in the strict sense of the term since the mayor and eight of nine council members are Republicans. But they’ve had the look and feel of political posturing at times.
So what else is new, someone might say about the machinations of local government. That’s just the way politics is – always and everywhere.
The difference is that Tupelo purports to hold itself to a higher standard. While city government has not been a principal driver in Tupelo’s economic success through the years – that distinction belongs to private sector leadership – it has played a pivotal role at important times. And while there have been moments of less than stellar performance and image projection through the decades, citizens have always considered city government to be a part of what defines Tupelo to the world.
Central to Tupelo’s identity, both internally and externally, is that it is a progressive city that works through issues in a constructive way. Needless political squabbling in city government directly contradicts that assumption and is detrimental to outsiders’ perception of the city.
All of which explains the public attitude now reflected in the candidates’ campaign statements. Tupelo’s civic culture – its deeply ingrained self-understanding – is asserting itself in the form of political pressure for a change of tone and practice.
It’s an encouraging sign that so many candidates are offering themselves for service. Many seem genuinely motivated by a desire to help establish a more constructive atmosphere at City Hall.
So let the theme continue, and let the campaign include discussion of how a progressive, forward thinking council and mayor ought to handle principled disagreements. Let the candidates share their ideas on where things have broken down the last few years and how they would approach the job differently, whether they would be new to office or back for another term.
Self-correction is another mark of a healthy city, and this campaign and election offer a prime opportunity for a checkup.
Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/Daily Journal