Slimantics: Smith gets the nod for mayor

June 3, 2013 9:59:32 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


On Tuesday, voters in Columbus will go to the polls to select a mayor and the final seat on the city council. 


What sort of turn-out can be expected is unclear. In November's presidential election, Mississippians turned out in record numbers -- roughly 75 percent of registered voters made it to the polls. That interest level will almost certainly not be sustained in Tuesday's municipal elections, though. Last month's primaries produced a turn out in the 25-percent range. 


A similar low turnout Tuesday would be unfortunate because there is no more important cog in city government than the mayor's position. There are compelling differences between the two top candidates for mayor. A third candidate, Columbus businessman Bo Jarrett, does not appear to have much of a chance. Thanks for playing, as they say. 


Voters will choose between incumbent Robert Smith, who is seeking his second full term in office, and longtime community volunteer Glenn Lautzenhiser, who has served on numerous city boards, including a long run as board member on the Columbus Municipal School District board of trustees. It appears to be an interesting contrast in styles. 


Smith has proven to be very much a hands-on mayor. Some say, in fact, he has been too hands-on -- a micro-manager at best, a bully at worst.  


Lautzenhiser, on the other hand, exudes an attitude of conciliation. Some say, in fact, that Lautzenhiser is timid, afraid to exert authority for fear that any meaningful stand might cause offense to someone. Lord knows, we can't have anybody's feelings hurt around here, right? 


I doubt there is a single person in Columbus who would suggest Lautzenhiser is anything other than a good, well-intentioned man. His years of volunteer work have proven that he is compassionate and that he really wants what is best for the city. In those volunteer roles, he has been a real asset to the community. What Lautzenhiser lacks, based on his less-than-convincing role on the school board, is leadership.  


I strongly suspect that, were he to become mayor, he would lack the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the department heads who would report to him. Certainly, he hasn't shown any inclination to stand up to Dr. Martha Liddell, the CMSD superintendent, even though the board has the right and responsibility to exert its authority over the superintendent. Lautzenhiser's reticence to demand accountability from an out-of-control superintendent has been a real blow to the city's schools.  


Lautzenhiser just wants everybody to "work together and get along," an idea that is as commendable as it is naive.  


Hey, I think it would be great if everybody in town would gather daily in front of city hall and sing Kumbaya. Ain't gonna happen. 


My suspicion is that a week after Lautzenhiser took office, he'd spend most of his time hiding under his desk for the next four years. 


He's a good man, certainly. His qualifications for the office appear to begin and end there, however. It is not enough. 


No one is likely to charge Smith with timidity, of course. In his six years as mayor, Smith has conducted his office like the old football coach he was. His hands are on everything, which isn't necessarily a flaw, by the way. 


What is open to question is Smith's judge of talent, particularly when it comes to Liddell and Columbus Police Department Chief Selvain McQueen. Smith will quickly insist that he had no direct involvement in putting Liddell and McQueen in their present positions. The operative words here are "direct involvement."  


The mayor certainly has no direct control over the school superintendent, of course. But it's worth noting that, even as the district's death spiral continues unabated, his support of Liddell is unwavering. Smith has yet to explain why he chose to rent the Trotter Center for a private party thrown by Liddell in December. His campaign literature speaks harshly of the CMSD when it comes to Lautzenhiser's involvement. But the bonds of affection for Liddell, the single person most responsible for the CMSD train wreck, remain strong where the mayor is concerned. 


The matter of the CPD is even more disturbing. McQueen's one-year tenure as chief has been marked by the absolute hemorrhaging of experienced officers -- another three veteran officers will tender their resignations at Tuesday's city council meeting as a whole-sale flight of talent continues. 


In ordinary circumstances, the scrutiny would fall on McQueen. McQueen is a sensitive soul, however, and not inclined to answer questions of this sort, which means he is either arrogant or afraid. Your guess is as good as mine on that. He won't take my calls, either, and I'm hardly Mike Wallace with a CBS camera crew in tow. 


But in this instance, McQueen may deserve at least a partial pass. There are many who earnestly insist that McQueen is merely a puppet, and that it is Smith who calls the shots at the CPD. 


In either case, Smith has some explaining to do. The flight of experienced officers from the CPD is his responsibility, either directly or indirectly. 


I would absolutely love to have that conversation. Maybe after the election, huh? 


What we have is two imperfect candidates. 


The rules say we have to pick somebody. 


I'd have to choose Smith, who has proven to be competent. Like Lautzenhiser, I do believe that Smith wants what's best for the city. I believe his insistence on being a hands-on leader has, for the most part, worked for the city's benefit. He has proven he can get things done. And I do believe he is fair, although his devotion to McQueen is hard to fathom and why he hasn't distanced himself from the albatross of a schools superintendent defies reason. 


Granted, he has a mess on his hands at the CPD. If elected, his next term will likely be judged largely on how he handles that fiasco. 


I'd say he's earned that opportunity. 


Smith has done a credible job as mayor. Certainly, he can do better. We expect that in his next term.

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]