TUPELO – They don’t want to overthrow Starkville’s government, just change it.
After a controversial firing in Starkville city government, some citizens want to galvanize public outcry to convince voters to become the 15th city in the state with a mayor/city council form of government.
In Starkville, the 15th most populous city in Mississippi according to 2010 Census records and 14th according to 2012 estimates, different groups have tried through the years to change the form of government from the mayor/aldermen form of government but never gained significant traction.
That may change after one of the first actions by the current Board of Aldermen, which began the four-year term in July. Without giving a reason, the board voted to fire the city’s chief administrative officer Lynn Spruill, who had served in the position since 2006.
Before serving as the city’s CAO, Spruill flew planes as a Navy and commercial pilot, earned a master’s degree in public administration and was elected mayor of Addison, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. She continues to manage a Starkville real estate business started by her father.
Mayor Parker Wiseman vetoed the firing, but the board voted to override the mayor. Shortly afterward, some agitated citizens began meeting to discuss city government at local restaurants for what they informally called “What the Heck?” meetings.
Around the same time of Spruill’s firing, William “Brother” Rogers, associate director of the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service in Starkville has renewed the effort to change the form of government in the city. He says the effort to change the government is unrelated but acknowledges public sentiment on the issue could help with the tall task of changing the form of government.
“This movement is not related to what happened to Lynn Spruill,” Rogers said. “That said, when citizens feel a need to change, we have it in our power to change our government.”
Starkville’s form of government is the same as about 95 percent of municipalities throughout the state. The change to the city council form of government would create more separation of powers between the mayor and council and is often referred to as “strong mayor” form of government. In the mayor/council form of government, the mayor nominates department heads and the city council decides whether to approve them. The mayor presents a budget, and the council decides whether to approve it or make changes.
Cities with city council form of government include Tupelo, Meridian, Hattiesburg, Jackson Columbus, Biloxi and Gulfport.
Rogers said Starkville’s continued development and 24,000 population, which doesn’t include nearly 20,000 MSU students in the area for much of the year, puts the community in need of a government typically seen as better equipped to handle more activity.
For the change to happen, at least 20 percent of Starkville voters must sign a petition to put the idea on a referendum, which must be approved by a simple majority.
To help educate the community, Rogers has enlisted the knowledge of former Tupelo mayor Larry Otis, who now lives in Starkville but was involved when Tupelo changed . Otis spoke to a group last week about the effort and believes now is the time for citizens to change the government to better reflect future goals of the city.
“I’m interested in this from the standpoint of good government and efficient government,” Otis said. “I know the mayor can have a lot of impact for the direction the community can go.”
Rogers hasn’t set a timetable for when he’d like to see the petition drive reach its goal or when an election should be held. If a successful referendum takes place, the new form of government would take effect with the city’s next election cycle, 2017.
“This is not a panacea,” he said. “But it’s part of a larger puzzle.”