Aldermen work to get the job done
Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 28, 2014
They’re an interesting pair.
The seasoned politician experienced in county and municipal government and a veteran of political campaigns, and the newcomer who decided to leave his job with the city and run for office because he wanted to help people.
North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield and South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson occupy the seats on either side of Mayor George Flaggs Jr. on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
The board got off to a shaky start when Mayfield and Thompson opposed Flaggs’ appointments for police chief, fire chief and municipal judge, approving only his nominee for city attorney.
Mayfield said his and Thompson’s actions were not an attempt to gain an edge on the mayor.
“I want to clear things up,” Mayfield said of the board’s first month in office, “so many people felt that there was a jockeying for position. George Flaggs is elected at large by the citizens of this city to be the mayor. I don’t cross the mayor and his position in any kind of way, and I believe he will tell you the same thing.”
“It (his votes) was never nothing personal,” Thompson said. “I believe in doing my homework before making a decision, and I’m always going to vote my conviction. I believe I sit in a place where I have to do the greater good, and sometimes those decisions are not popular with everyone, but it it’s best, that’s the way I vote.”
The two aldermen reached their offices through different avenues.
Mayfield, a former Warren County supervisor, was re-elected to a third term in May 2013, getting 70 percent of the vote to defeat three opponents in a first primary victory. Thompson, a former city information technology employee and director of the city’s cable channel TV23, won the Democratic primary and then defeated Republican and independent opponents in the general election to become the first black alderman to represent the South Ward.
Thompson said he rarely thinks about that historic item as much as what the board has accomplished in its first year. What he is more concerned about, he said, is his focus on getting things done in the city, and learning what the citizens want, and making the city operate more efficiently.
“I’ve been involved in getting out in the neighborhoods and meeting with constituents,” he said. “One thing we’re looking at now, we have a problem with people living in the city who are living on private streets that need work. The streets are up to code, but there’s lot of red tape in getting the city to take them over.”
He is also a member of the city’s technology committee, which has developed technology programs to help improve efficiency and to bring the citizens more in touch with city government.
“As a taxpayer, they have a right to look at everything we’re doing and have a voice in what we’re doing,” he said. “I want to hear what they’re concerned about, and we can’t really serve the public if we don’t know what they want.”
Mayfield, who is also mayor pro tem, brings his experience on the board and sits on the city’s contracts committee. “He knows how to get things done,” Thompson said.
“We’ve addressed a lot of issues this first year,” Thompson said. “The first year, you’re putting your eye on a lot of things. You’re addressing problems and trying to move on the things you ran on. One of those things was fiscal responsibility, and I think we’ve achieved that.
“We’re about to get our bond rating back, we did institute a hiring freeze, we did institute the city’s first ever reserve account,” he said. “I think by the end of the fiscal year, we’ll have that bond rating.”
Both men see getting the city’s financial house in order as a highlight of the board’s first year.
“I’m still in shouting the mode for no other reason than we have our audits straightened,” Mayfield said. “That’s something that’s been hanging over my head since I’ve been elected to the board.”
The city had been behind in its audits since 2007, and the lack of audited financial information was the reason Moody’s Investment Services, a New York-based provider of credit ratings and risk analysis, decided to pull the city’s A-1 rating in February 2012.
“Most people don’t realize that if you don’t have that bond rating to the highest level, in a sense, you can’t do anything as far money is concerned,” Mayfield said. “We’ve streamlined to the point where every department (head) knows the meaning of ‘staying within your budget.’ The only way they can go out of their budget is if they have a majority of the board’s vote to do that.”
He said the audit backlog “hung like a cloud on the city as a whole.”
“I want to know where every dime is going in the city, and I don’t think you can be fiscally responsible managing the purse the way you need to without stopping wasteful spending, doing better budgeting and holding people accountable,” Thompson said.
Looking forward, the aldermen see a new bond rating as the key to handling several issues facing the city.
“That will be important in moving the city forward,” Thompson said. “The city hasn’t paved roads in over a decade. We’ve got to look at our water and sewer infrastructure. We have to look at quality of life issues like the sports complex. Those are things we have to have to attract industry to the city and just to provide services. The role of government is to provide services, and if that’s not a priority, we’re not doing our job.”
“Our infrastructure is caving in,” Mayfield said. “Our utilities are something we have to get serious about the next time we float a bond.”
Besides capital improvements and a recreation complex, the board has declared war on trash and litter, holding a cleanup day and forming a beautification committee to help set policy and take over the city’s litter program.
“When people come to Vicksburg, you have only one opportunity to impress a tourist or a visitor, and they want to see a clean, manicured city” Thompson said.
The beautification committee, he said, “will be more than just picking up paper. It will be addressing issues all over the city on how to keep the city well-landscaped and manicured — how the city should look at all our entrances.”
Mayfield said he feels good about the beautification committee, adding, “when I first got here, that was something Mayor (Laurence) Leyens and his administration were very high on. I don’t think anyone should have to live in an environment that is not clean, neat and proper. I think this committee is going to help.”
Both men refused to grade their activity for the first year, adding they’ll leave that decision to the voters.
“(But) If you gave me a scale of getting things done, I would give us a nine, because of the old cliché, ‘the proof is in the pudding,’” Mayfield said. “We’ve stuck together.
“This board at this point has worked through adversities and come out to see a sunny day, and this has been one of the strongest suits since we’ve been here,” he said.
“One thing I’m most proud of is that you have three guys who come to work every day,” he said. “I’ve never seen that on any elected board. They put their nose to the grindstone and they try to better the city in which we live and our families live.”