By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Four-term City Council member Nettie Davis waited 12 years to serve as the leader of the city’s policy-making body, a role she ends this week.
Davis, 72, a retired Tupelo Public School District art teacher, made history a year ago this week when her fellow council members unanimously selected her as council president, the first black and first woman in the role.
She tried to emphasize council and community-wide unity and civility as council president.
“You’re going to have disagreements,” she said Friday. “But you can talk it out and have resolution.”
Two wards changed representatives a year ago this Tuesday when the new council was sworn in. Both are first-time elected officials – Lynn Bryan of Ward 2 and Buddy Palmer of Ward 5.
Former Councilman Fred Pitts of Ward 2 served as council president all four years during the previous administration. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor, resulting in new leadership in both Tupelo’s top executive the council leadership positions.
Five of the seven council members interviewed by the Daily Journal last week all praised the overall leadership of both Mayor Jason Shelton and Davis. Councilman Mike Bryan of Ward 6 and Willie Jennings of Ward 7 both were unavailable for interviews.
Few votes in the first year of this council and administration resulted in narrow 4-3 decisions. The council unanimously approved 15 of Shelton’s 16 department head nominations. Mike Bryan voted as the lone dissenter against city attorney Ben Logan’s nomination to replace the long-time city law firm od Mitchell McNutt & Sams.
Lynn Bryan, a private contractor, said his first year as a public official has reaffirmed his belief in consensus-building on the council and the community to avoid factionalism that can limit the public body’s ability to achieve goals.
“You’ve got to remember it’s not just what you want to get done,” he said. “It’s what you have convince six other folks and the mayor to support.”
However, desire for unity doesn’t mean the public officials haven’t become frustrated with each other after passionate discussions. Lynn Bryan and Davis remained after a council work session in February to continue a heated disagreement about when to schedule a vote related to the planning for a new police headquarters.
However, Bryan later said he regretted taking the disagreement personally and apologized to the former teacher by giving her a shiny red apple.
Speaking of unity and civility, councilman Palmer, a resident living in part of unincorporated parts of Lee County annexed in 2012, said he hopes on-going negotiations between the city and the North Lee County Water Association to allow Tupelo Water & Light to provide services to annexed customers doesn’t turn contentious.
“I hope they realize what is in everyone’s best interest now,” he said. “I hope we get a resolution and it doesn’t get tacky.”
Two-term Councilman Jim Newell of Ward 3 said the current environment on the council places him a very different position compared to his previous four years, when he was frequently a lonely voice of opposition. He sees himself now as a key swing vote for Shelton when an issue has potential to result in a 4-3 decision.
“Jason doesn’t have four votes in the bag every time,” Newell said. “I’m kind of in the center and my opinion does matter.”
However, dynamics could change this week when Mike Bryan, the most senior member on the council who hasn’t served as president, is expected to receive majority support for the position at Tuesday’s meeting. He strongly clashed with Shelton and other council members on creation of the city attorney position and the more recent vote to extend hours to sell alcohol.
As for Davis, she said she can relinquish the role of council president as easily as she accepted it. However, she’d welcome another chance to lead the group.
“Maybe I can have another opportunity to serve as president again before this four-year term ends,” she said.