HALL COLUMN: Council not too political for my taste

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Someone asked me the other day if this was the most politically charged city council I had ever covered. Until that point, I had not stopped to think about it.

For one, every council or board I&8217;ve ever covered has been politically charged, save maybe one county supervisor board in Northeast Mississippi that got along so well that the voters turned every last one of them out in the next election.

To me, being politically charged is par-for-the-course, and it&8217;s not a bad thing. People often vilify politics, and I&8217;ve never quite understood why.

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Our form of government ensures that we will always have partisan politics. Human nature dictates that we will always have other political alliances. Our political culture is nothing more than a reflection of our social behaviors. Like people are drawn together. And in politics, as in life, sometimes those alliances change from issue to issue.

As far as the politically charged nature of the Demopolis City Council, I do not believe they are the worst I&8217;ve covered. While I think they need better communication, it&8217;s my general impression that they get more done than a lot of councils serving municipalities this size.

Take the City of Forest, Miss., for instance. I see a lot of parallels between the two governing bodies. Both have first-term women mayors with progressive ideas who replaced long-serving mayors. Both are split 3-2 along racial lines &8212; Forest with three black members and two white members; Demopolis just the opposite. Both serve areas that have steady growth with much potential.

The difference: the board here is quicker to act and more aggressive in dealing with problematic issues. Plus, I see more voting diversity in this board, which is to say that you may have five votes that break 3-2, but rarely are they the same three on any given issue.

Granted, the city council here is facing a lot of out-of-the-ordinary business right now. They are trying to hire a city clerk and a fire chief. They have a mayor who is under indictment after the board unanimously sought the indictment during a secretly called meeting that this newspaper maintains violated state open meeting laws. And, if that wasn&8217;t enough, election time is just around the corner.

So, sure, there is a little excitement about the board. But let&8217;s stop and consider these items for a moment.

First, let&8217;s tackle the obvious &8220;juicy&8221; story. Without rehashing the entire history of the mayor being indicted, a few things should be understood. For one, if this was completely a political witch hunt, at least one of the councilmen would have come publicly forward to her defense by now.

Too, the council has yet to admit to their own violation of state statute. Perhaps they think their infraction is not as grave as what the mayor is accused of doing, and if she is found guilty then I would agree. But let&8217;s not forget that four councilmen met at least once &8212; if not twice &8212; and made a &8220;board decision&8221; (a councilman&8217;s words, not mine) to have the district attorney seek the indictment. That&8217;s wrong, plain and simple.

But despite all of this, the business of the council has carried on. Sure, you can detect some tense moments between the mayor and one or two councilmen, but by-and-large everyone has been civil and professional. That says a lot about the board.

On to the hiring of two positions. Neither of these are easy to fill, and that explains a bit about what is going on. The clerk has to be the toughest job in city hall to fill. This person serves at the will of the council, which comes up every four years. That&8217;s not guaranteed job security, for starters.

Past that, the pay scale is not that of the private sector, though it surely isn&8217;t a bad and the benefits are good. But the position demands a highly qualified individual who deals with a lot of numbers and sensitive information.

I&8217;ve heard the council take flack about not offering more money to a candidate who turned down the job. This candidate did not need benefits and therefore asked for the salary to be bumped. The council obliged but not to what she wanted. That was a smart business move. If it were me, I would not have bumped the salary in lieu of benefits at all. If the job comes with benefits, then that is part of it. If the person does not want the benefits, that&8217;s fine, but they still have that option. If the person changes their mind six months into employment, then the city is out both benefits and an increased salary.

If the salary needs to be raised, then the Finance Committee will look at it at the right time. For now, the city seems to be doing the best they can to fill the job, even if it is taking some time.

As for fire chief, that&8217;s another one of those often thankless positions. The biggest complaint here is that it seems Public Safety Director Jeff Manuel was being left out of the loop. That&8217;s odd, but it just points to one more place where the city is plagued with a bad habit of miscommunication. Evidence of miscommunication also exists in the mayor&8217;s indictment, the council&8217;s calling a secret meeting, the hiring of a city clerk and even other recent issues like a proposed regional HAZMAT agreement with Choctaw County.

Perhaps politics is the cause of this miscommunication, but in each example different people are being left out of the loop. That&8217;s the confounding part of it all.

So, to answer the original question posed to me, this is not the most politically charged council I&8217;ve covered. They are full of politics, sure, but politics runs our government. And most of the time, political alliances produce positive results.

When it&8217;s all said and done, the politics of this council will end with a court decision about the mayor&8217;s benefits, an Ethics Commission ruling on the council&8217;s secret meeting, a new city clerk and a new fire chief &8212; all the while they will continue to look at zoning issues, build a municipal complex, help the school district develop a new athletic complex and appoint people to boards that make our city more appealing and help recruit industry to the area.

Politics is not all bad; it just needs to be kept in check, which is what elections are all about.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com. His blog can be read at www.demopolistimes.com/multimedia/blog.