The Starkville Board of Aldermen convene in front of a packed house in this 2012 Dispatch file photo. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
June 28, 2014 10:30:36 PM
While Starkville aldermen's first year in office was mired by numerous instances of public backlash, the departure of key employees and claims of shady dealings, the city has quietly positioned itself for industrial expansion and enjoyed seeing in excess of $100 million in projects enter planning and development stages.
July 1 marks the one-year anniversary of the board of aldermen's and Mayor Parker Wiseman's ascension into office. Last year, Wiseman defeated then GOP nominee Dan Moreland after contentious, year-long campaigns that focused on the city's business climate.
Many new aldermen also hammered incumbents over the city's fiscal health, labeling the previous administration as "business unfriendly" and hammering leaders over the handling of how to build and fund a new municipal complex and transparency issues.
Four new aldermen would find seats at the table after the election cycle. Two protracted Democratic primaries - Ward 2's battle between Alderman Lisa Wynn and incumbent Sandra Sistrunk, and Ward 4's race between Jason Walker and John Gaskin - yielded allegations of election mismanagement by the city and drug into a run-off and court challenge, respectively, while Ward 3 Alderman David Little unseated Republican incumbent Eric Parker in the highest-spent ward primary of the year. Ward 5 Alderman Scott Maynard, a Republican, replaced Jeremiah Dumas after the incumbent said he would not seek re-election.
Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins easily held onto his seat after an intra-party challenge, as did Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver also won re-election after a contender failed to qualify on either the Democratic or Republican ticket.
One year later, the city finds itself at the center of an Open Meetings Act complaint that alleges aldermen have established a pattern of tending to business beyond the public's purview.
Public backlash began immediately when the board took over. In that first month, aldermen voted to remove long-serving Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill from her position, one that she began under Mayor Dan Camp.
Despite glowing reviews from the previous board, which included three current members, the board took its action without meeting in executive session to discuss the matter or delivering Spruill or the public a reason behind the move beyond Carver's admission that he prayed about the decision.
Since the Spruill ousting, other key city employees either resigned or retired from their posts, including former Municipal Clerk Debra Wood, Starkville Police Chief David Lindley and Community Developer William Snowden. Former City Clerk Taylor Adams was promoted to CAO, and Lesa Hardin filled his former position.
Additionally, Sanitation and Environmental Services Director Emma Gandy, Personnel Director Randy Boyd and City Engineer Edward Kemp were either placed on suspension or probationary review by the board without aldermen confirming why the moves were made.
In reaction to the board's moves, a group of citizens formed Starkville Thinks, an informal, grassroots group that came together after the Spruill ousting to discuss ongoing political issues. Some of those members peppered aldermen during public comment section with discontent over policy and personnel decisions throughout 2013.
Others began openly calling for Starkville to change its form of government, but those calls have quieted since.
Aldermen attempted to limit cell phone usage by the public during board meetings, labeling the action as a distraction, but the board eventually agreed to ask people to turn off or silence their phones before the start of business. Backlash again came as members of the public who live tweet meetings felt their freedom of speech was solely targeted by the original measure.
At the height of contention, aldermen, specifically Wynn and Vaughn, debated the public at the table over numerous issues. Wynn previously accused Greater Starkville Development Partnership CEO Jennifer Gregory of using her position to support a multi-faceted ordinance review committee without approval from the Partnership board of trustees, when in fact trustees supported Gregory's call. The Ward 2 alderman was also involved in a row with former alderman and mayoral candidate Mary Lee Beal over Starkville's sidewalk rules and development district.
Vaughn lashed out at public commenters in January for months of criticism by describing the comments as a "disgrace in the sight of God."
The Ward 7 alderman is the subject of an ethics complaint after he failed to recuse himself from the February school board appointment that also yielded the city's Open Meetings Act charge.
After voting on the matter, Vaughn confirmed to The Dispatch that his daughter works for Starkville School District. He participated, Vaughn said, because she does not live with him. Vaughn was previously warned to abstain from SSD votes in 2010 because of his connection. Two other aldermen recused themselves before the February vote because of ties to the school system.
Vaughn, who previously voted against expanding Starkville's alcohol sales to Sundays, was arrested earlier this month and charged with driving under the influence. He was absent from the board meeting prior to his arrest due to a death in the family.
Public comments lambasting the board for its actions have declined in recent months.
Despite a fiery start, Wiseman says the city is able to effectively govern and pointed to increased economic activity as a sign that Starkville is growing.
"The political process is rarely neat and clean, but as long as you have multiple decision makers that are responsible for making government work, different ideas and exchanges of different opinions will be par for the course in this process," he said.
"One unique feature of our form of government is that while I have all of the day-to-day, superintending authority that is typically associated with the executive branch of government, all of the hiring, firing and disciplinary authority rests with the board. Of course, that is a system that sometimes frustrates me, and I'm sure sometimes there are board members that are frustrated by the system," the two-term mayor added. "Ultimately, it's the responsibility of all of us to make that work. There are going to be times because of our roles that we're going to have disagreements about personnel decisions, but our job is to get through those as functionally as possible and remain focused on the task of governing the city."
Comparatively, Wiseman says public dissatisfaction this year with Starkville's government remains about equal to those comments fielded during the first term, albeit from a different audience. In the previous four years, more negative comments came from local conservatives, he said. Now, it's the moderates and liberals who routinely approached the podium last year to air grievances.
"There's an ebb and flow of it, a cycle of issues. Two or three months might go by without controversial topics," he said, noting the calmer meetings as of late.
As for the coming year, some of the biggest decisions the city will face include renewing its economic development contract with the Golden Triangle Development LINK, possibly issuing $5 million in bonds to develop a new industrial park on Highway 25, studying its sanitation department for cost-saving measures and developing a plan to potentially annex surrounding population areas and shore up sales tax leakage.
The board approved an almost-2 mill tax increase last year to help fund raises and provide more money for Starkville Parks Commission, increasing departmental requests and outside contributions. If the board pushes forward its economic development bonds, taxes are forecasted to increase with the action.
Wiseman said the city's continued relationship with the LINK is paramount to continued economic success. The national economy has picked up since the recession, driving more local developments across the state, Wiseman said. The LINK will play a significant role in building upon this trend and landing more retail and industrial development in Oktibbeha County, Wiseman said.
"That's the biggest thing (renewing its operating contract with the LINK) that the city has before it. Probably the most significant policy matter to occur is our economic development contract with the LINK," he said. "(C Spire's data center project) doesn't happen without them. That's the prime example of one that was worked from its inception to its groundbreaking by the LINK. Had we not had that apparatus in place, we wouldn't have been anywhere near contention for it.
"Things are moving generally better in the economy more than they were three years ago. Starkville finds itself well-positioned for new opportunities," Wiseman added. "We're generally recognized as a growth market - we have a growing population and can show the ability to attract new industry. If you're looking to do a project in Mississippi, realistically Starkville is one of about 10 markets that are very attractive right now."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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