March 22, 2013 11:03:29 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
The city's three mayoral candidates spoke Thursday at Lion Hills Golf Club, outlining their campaign platforms and visions for the city of Columbus. Incumbent mayor Robert Smith is being challenged by Republican Glenn Lautzenhiser and Independent Bo Jarrett in the June 4 municipal election.
Smith, 60, focused on the city's financial stability and infrastructure needs, saying that while people call his office at all hours of the day and night to make complaints, the city needs ample finances to provide services like pothole repair and street paving.
He pointed out the broad gap between the city's operating millage of 40.13 mills, valued at $172,000 per mill, and the 65.87 mills -- valued at $206,000 per mill -- the Columbus Municipal School District requires to operate.
If the city could improve its millage, Smith said, it could provide more services to its citizens.
Over the past three years, the city has received $26 million in grants, and he said he has fostered good working relationships with the county's elected officials as well as legislators, congressmen, senators, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and highway commissioners -- all of whom he relies upon to answer his call when he comes asking for money.
Crime is an issue, he acknowledged, though there are bigger problems. He said he and the councilmen were concerned when they learned the Columbus Police Department presented only one case to the grand jury in January. He said when he questioned police chief Selvain McQueen, he was told that investigators did not properly prepare their paperwork.
"Our advice to him was to do whatever he needed to do and do it in ample time so it never happens again, because it was an embarrassment not only to the police department but also to the City of Columbus and the elected officials, including myself and the city council," Smith said. "There was no excuse for it."
He noted his skills as a good listener and leader and said he looks back on his 11 years in public service with pride.
"I've asked myself if my administration has contributed to making the city a better place for our children, families and businesses," he said. "If my leadership has served as a catalyst for positive change. Lastly, I asked myself if I am proud of the results. I can stand before you today and proudly answer yes to each of these questions."
In addition to finances, infrastructure and crime, he listed his priorities as beautification,, economic development, job creation and the eradication of dilapidated houses, overgrown lots and abandoned vehicles.
His vision, he said, is a city of hope, unity and choice, where all citizens can afford a better quality of life.
Lautzenhiser, 72, said he believes championing the cause of young people is the key to solving the crime issue, which he attributes primarily to drugs. If adults take the time to forge relationships with youth, gaining their trust by showing someone cares about them, they will make wiser choices, he said.
But he feels the biggest challenge Columbus faces is fostering a spirit of unity and working collectively toward a better city. He envisions a place where visitors and residents can say that the city government and departments are helpful, knowledgeable and friendly, providing a positive experience.
"I am not going to be partisan," he said. "I'm going to be a champion for the people of Columbus. I look upon the citizens of Columbus as our clients, and for that reason, I want them to receive exemplary customer service, and I believe I can make that happen."
He vowed to be committed to retail development, working to attract new businesses to town while making sure current business owners feel their needs are being heard and addressed.
"One of the things I will do if I am elected mayor is I'm going to tell the council and our department heads that before we make a decision, we need to ask this question: What is best for the citizens of Columbus? If we do that, I think we will make a lot of good decisions."
Jarrett, 58, said he feels his experience as a businessman has given him the ability to make Columbus more profitable and the envy of other cities.
He focused primarily on the city's crime rate and drug problems, alluding to alleged wrongdoings in the city.
"I've seen things that should not have happened, things that have gotten pushed under the rug, people treated in one way and others in another way," Jarrett said. "This city has a set of guidelines and ordinances. It has a chief operations officer and six councilmen. This city should run smoother than it is."
Drugs are the biggest problem the city faces, he said.
"It's not something we're going to be able to take care of locally; it's not something we're going to be able to take care of city-county," he said. "It's going to take a big operation to really watch this. It's going to take an operation that not everybody knows is going on to do something about it. There's just too much going on here that a lot of people don't know about, and I've probably said too much already."
He envisions a "clean, no-pothole city," where people feel safe to walk their dogs without looking over their shoulders. Like Smith and Lautzenhiser, he would like to see a more unified city.
He declined to explain how he would solve the crime issue.
"I don't want to discuss too much what my plan would be," he said. "But I've got some stuff that doesn't need to be put out until it happens."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.