Mayor adjusts to unique form of government

Published 11:15 am Friday, June 27, 2014

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. stands in front of City Hall.

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. stands in front of City Hall.

Looking at his first year as Vicksburg’s mayor, George Flaggs Jr. summed it up in one sentence: “It hasn’t been as tough as I thought it would be.”

His first few days, however, were very rough.

After winning the June 4, 2013, general election to be the city’s 45th mayor with 77.4 percent of the vote, Flaggs, who had been a state representative for 25 years, came into office with an agenda and a 10-point plan aimed at restoring public confidence in city government by changing the way it operates.

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But that agenda hit a major roadblock on July 11, when Aldermen Michael Mayfield and Willis Thompson refused to support his slate of nominations for police and fire chief and city judge, voting instead to reappoint the sitting chiefs and appoint the city court’s judge pro tem to the bench.

Only one of Flaggs initial nominations for a top city office was confirmed with the selection of former Municipal Court Judge Nancy Thomas as city attorney.

Since those contentious July meetings, Flaggs, Mayfield and Thompson have resolved their differences and developed a working relationship that for the most part has enabled Flaggs to move his plans forward.

“I guess that’s because I made the adjustment,” Flaggs said.

“I came in with a notion that if I could handle the Legislature, I certainly could handle this form of government,” he said as he recalled those early loses and his initial difficulty at grasping Vicksburg’s unique form of commission government, which has been operating since 1913.

Under the three-member concept of government used in Vicksburg, one member serves as mayor and the two aldermen are over different city departments. Each member has an equal vote.

“I have to admit that I could never endorse this form of government, having served a year in it,” Flaggs said. “You can’t have three chiefs, or three people with equal authority. Somebody has to be responsible and held accountable. I think that’s what this form of government lacks.

“However, given that I inherited it, I try to make the best of it by working as best I can with Alderman Mayfield and Alderman Thompson,” he continued. “Because of that, we can attest (that) we have not had a dissenting vote since the first day.”

One reason for the improvement, he said, is because he’s tried to communicate better with the aldermen, gotten them more involved in running the government and empowered them by placing them over certain city departments. Mayfield is over public works, and Thompson is over recreation and the fire department.

“As I tell them, ‘when the city wins, the team wins. When the city loses, I lose, because I haven’t provided the leadership,’” he said.

Flaggs’ improved relationship with Mayfield and Thompson is evident in his success at getting most of his 10-point plan, he announced after being elected, approved and moving ahead:

• Reorganize city government: In December, the board approved a reorganization of city government, putting the city’s 30 different departments under nine specific divisions named directors for all but one of the divisions.

• Impose a hiring freeze: The board in September approved a one-year hiring freeze on city offices except the city fire and police departments and replacement positions. Any new positions would require the board’s approval.

• Get a complete audit of city finances: The audits for 2011, 2012, and 2013 were completed during the year, bringing the city up-to-date on its audit for the first time since its 2004 audit report.

The city fell behind in its audits in 2007, beginning with the fiscal 2006 audit, and by 2011 the 2008, 2009 and 2010 audits were delinquent. In 2012, Moody’s Investment Services, a New York-based provider of credit ratings and risk analysis, pulled the city’s A-1 bond rating because of the missing audits.

• Restore the city’s bond rating: With the audits completed, the city has filed a request with Moody’s for a re-evaluation of the city ‘s finances to get the bond rating restored.

“That’s the key to the future,” Flaggs said. “That’s the key to what we can afford in the future. If we don’t get a bond rating, we will not borrow any money in the future unless it’s absolutely necessary in an emergency. I will not be responsible for borrowing money at a high interest rate.”

If the bond rate is approved, he said, “you’re going to see a capital improvement plan coming forward, resurfacing streets. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do a sports complex or improve recreation (programs), or both.”

He said a report on a new bond rating is expected in the next few weeks.

• Operate the city in fiscal 2014 at the same budget level as 2013: The city’s 2014 $29.7 million budget was $53,479 more than its fiscal 2013 budget.

• Establish a rainy day fund with the projected increased revenue for 2014 and surplus from 2013: The city has a $3 million rainy day, or reserve fund, and a contingency fund for emergencies.

• Re-evaluate all city contracts: Flaggs appointed a committee of Mayfield, City Clerk Walter Osborne and Thomas to review the city’s contracts with an eye toward saving money.

• Raise the minimum wage for city employees from $7.25 an hour to $8 an hour: The board will have a work session Monday and hold a special meeting Tuesday on Flaggs’ proposed employee pay raises for city employee and police and firefighters.

Flaggs failed get the aldermen to agree to his plan to have all salaried city department heads re-apply for their jobs. The proposal is part of his plans for next year.

Flaggs counts getting the audits current and changing the mindset of the people as his biggest accomplishments.

“I think the city’s headed in the right direction,” he said. “The attitude of the people has changed. They feel more positive about Vicksburg. People are moving back downtown. Downtown is thriving, there’s more foot traffic, and one reason is increased security.”

He said police are patrolling the downtown area and violent crime is down overall in the city.

Flaggs said he wants to see more done to bring tourism to the area by using the Vicksburg National Military Park as an anchor, and make the river front area more attractive for tourists.

Improving tourism, he said, “is another move we’ve got to make to make up for declining casino revenues. We’ve got to put the city in a much more competitive position in the next couple years. We’ve got to make it a family-oriented destination.”

But the changes and apparent increased public confidence in the city’s direction are not influencing the mayor to begin considering a run for a second term.

“It’s too soon to say,” he said. “You normally don’t make those kinds of decisions until after the second year. I’m more worried about leaving the city better than I found it than being re-elected. Normally, if you do what you say you’re going to do, and go beyond that, you get re-elected. I want to be the best mayor this city has ever had.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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