The council unanimously passed an ordinance restricting smoking in public places, established a housing commission and quality of life committee, raised millage to pay for a new baseball complex and police station, and affirmed the city’s pursuit of annexation. These weren’t easy issues to tackle, and yet the council and mayor did so with admirable focus and dispatch.
Six of the nine members elected in 2005 were new to the council, and hopes that the overhaul would produce better results than the previous term seemed to be coming to fruition. While there were disagreements on the council and with the mayor, they hadn’t degenerated into back-biting factionalism.
Then after such a promising start, the wheels fell off. The remainder of the term would shape for good the current public perception of a divided council unable to set aside personalities, power and control issues for the greater good of the city and often at odds with a mayor they accused of ignoring them.
Much of what happened in the last three years of this term revolved around these dynamics, whether it was the dispute over engineers for the Major Thoroughfare Program, the handling of the city’s ethics study, the mayor’s appointments to city boards, or other issues. Once the lines were drawn, there was no going back to the productive atmosphere of that first year.
Some might say this is inevitable in an elected political body, that a little power can go to people’s heads or that folks with strong opinions and equally strong egos – often the kind who run for public office – eventually will fight for turf and control. (See: Legislature and governor, Mississippi.)
Yet clearly the public expected something better; otherwise, three of the five council incumbents who ran for re-election wouldn’t have lost and the mayoral candidate who promised a “fresh start” wouldn’t have won. Or, perhaps more tellingly, every candidate who ran for office – including incumbents – wouldn’t have emphasized their desire to see an end to the contentiousness.
In the wake of last week’s election, there are high expectations that the new administration and council will usher in a return to civility and an end to petty power struggles. This doesn’t mean unanimity on every issue or the absence of vigorous and constructive debate. It does mean that voters want to have confidence that those debates are really about the issues, not about the underlying politics of personalities. They clearly have not had such confidence in the recent past.
The new council and mayor are, collectively, a fine group of people. Each brings a unique set of experiences, talents and interests to the table. All have been actively involved in the community through the years.
But the same potential pitfalls evident the last three years await these new city leaders. The outgoing officials are individually good people, too, but collectively they couldn’t maintain an appropriate level of communication and collaboration to meet their constituents’ rightful expectations. The new council and mayor will have to be vigilant to ensure that doesn’t happen to them.
The first year may go well, as it did before. The key will be an ongoing commitment from everyone to set aside disagreements once issues are resolved and to meet the next one on its merits; to listen and respond to their colleagues with sincerity and respect; and while hearing and representing the specific concerns of their wards, to always keep in mind what’s best for the city as a whole.
That doesn’t mean everyone will get along famously. But as sociologist Vaughn Grisham has noted, a key to Tupelo’s success has always been its leaders’ ability to work together constructively – even when they didn’t particularly like each other.
The challenge for the new mayor and city council isn’t to like each other, though they may; it’s to love their community enough to actively overcome and set aside the tensions, conflicts and perceived personal slights that inevitably will arise in order to help, not hinder, the city’s progress.
It’s really that simple, though admittedly not easy. But those elected all ran on such a promise, and Tupelo’s citizens clearly expect them to keep their word.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or email@example.com.