Candidates face-to-face in first forum

Published 9:30 am Friday, April 21, 2017

The challengers brought their dreams while the incumbents defended their records as they met with voters for the first time before the May 2 primary for municipal elections.

Candidates for mayor and North and South Ward alderman explained their platforms Thursday night at a candidate forum at the Warren County Courthouse sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Blacks in Government and the Vicksburg Chapter of the NAACP.

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The candidates responded to written questions screened by the organizers, with questions about stimulating economic development, the privatization of the city’s water treatment plant on Haining Road and the city charter addressed to the candidates for all three offices.

Ideas for creating an atmosphere to improve economic development included recommendations for improving the city’s image, improving city streets and City Hall, and using the river as an engine to increase development.

“We need to create an environment that makes it conducive for industry to come here,” said state Rep. Alex Monsour, a candidate for South Ward Alderman. “No. 1 is we can’t fight out in public. We’ve got to be all on the same page when they (business) come to our city. We need to unify our government.”

South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson said the city needed to maintain its infrastructure.

“Nobody’s going to invest in a city that’s falling apart,” he said.

Thompson said the city has to move further with its entrepreneurship program to stimulate small business and get people to invest in the city and to be able to get contracts with the state, city and federal government. Education also has to improve to produce the type of work force business and industry will need.

“We have to build up the city,” North Ward Alderman candidate John Carroll told the audience.

Vicksburg’s main thoroughfares are in poor shape, he said, adding City Hall was in poor shape and in need of repair, calling the building “a hog stye.”

“The first thing we really need to do is we need to actually stop talking and start doing,” said Troy Kimble, another North Ward candidate. “We’re making all these studies about studies. … We know what needs to be done, let’s make it happen.”

He said the city needs to be clean and safe, and education improved. “We have to re-invest in ourselves.”

North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield said the county had a new economic development director who will travel to bring companies to the area.

“But this is more serious than someone traveling around trying to bring businesses here,” he said. “You have to get involved with your schools. You have to sometime take some interest in what’s going on around us. If we work together, all of us, our citizens, government and our schools, we’ll get there.”

The candidates for mayor discussed other programs to increase economic development.

Mitchell Dent said the city and education has to be improved, including a strong vocational education program.

“If we have a work force that’s conducive to business, not only will they come, but they will stay,” he said.

Darryl Hollingsworth highlighted the Port of Vicksburg and the area’s advantage of having rail, water and highway access for attracting business.

He said the city also has to build more affordable housing, adding, “My goal is to stop the population declining in Vicksburg.

“We need leadership to move this city forward,” Willie Robinson said. “We can do it together.”

“We need to use one of our greatest assets, the river,” said Charles Selmon, who is the county’s District 3 supervisor.

“Other communities I’ve been to that have a river, are doing something with the river,” he said. “We choose to do nothing with our river. Our greatest asset is our river; we’re not utilizing it. We have too much possibility to be where we’re at today.”

Jennifer Thomas said the area’s education needed improving. “It all begins and ends with education. We need to improve that and then we can begin with the rest,” she said.

Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said the city’s 1912 charter does not allow the city to have an economic development director, adding changing the charter would open that position.

He said he agreed with the previous comments on economic development, saying cooperation was important to improve economic development. “We all need to pool our resources,” he said.

The candidates were mixed on the privatization of the water treatment plant, with some candidates wanting to examine the contract before deciding if it was a good decision.

Flaggs, Mayfield and Thompson defended the contract, saying the city was unable to find a state-certified operator to oversee the plant’s operations. All three said they would do it again.

Selmon and Carroll questioned the need for the contract, saying the city’s payroll at the time of the contract was between $300,000 and $400,000, while the city was paying ESG $730,000. Selmon claimed there was a clause in the contract where the city could end up paying ESG $1 million. Flaggs denied the claim. He also said part of the problem leading to the ESG contract was the lack of a program when the board took office to cross-train employees to have them ready to take over if someone above them left the city. “We inherited that problem,” he said.

The board in July 2016 signed a contract with Georgia-based ESG Operations to manage and operate the water plant for $726,500 a year, or $60,541.66 a month, plus an annual maintenance fee of $100,000, or $8,333 a month.

The city’s fiscal 2016 budget for the water treatment plant was $5.072 million. As of April 2016, the city had spent $690,000 on salaries and benefits, minor repairs and other costs at the plant.

Carroll and Dent said the city needed to take steps to train workers to be able to take over certain jobs at the plant.

The majority of the candidates were satisfied with the city’s charter and commission form of government, adding the key to the government was for all three members to work together and be willing to compromise. One thing several candidates agreed on was the charter’s provisions, which prevented one person from having too much individual power.

Robinson took a different view.

“I disagree with all of you,” he said. Robinson said the city needed to change to a mayor-council form of government, which he said would provide more local representation in neighborhoods.

Flaggs, who has pushed to amend the charter, said it was not suitable for the times.

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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