Timeless or Outdated? Vicksburg’s century-old commission government explored

Published 7:25 pm Friday, October 6, 2023

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series covering why Vicksburg’s city government is established the way it is, what options there are to change it and how residents could go about doing so. 

It’s been the same for 111 years: the City of Vicksburg is run by a mayor and two aldermen.

Vicksburg is the only city in Mississippi with the traditionally outlined commission form of government, meaning three commissioners are elected to run the city, each having equal power. In the 1980s, the city government was changed from three members elected at-large to the present two-ward system, which was developed to meet the one-man, one-vote rule, thus meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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The commission form was approved by the Legislature in 1908, and was popular with many major cities, including Biloxi and Jackson, until the 1980s, but the problems caused by growth made the system ineffective, and its at-large elections did not meet the one-man, one-vote rule under federal elections. Clarksdale also technically operates within the commission format, but the city has four commissioners representing four wards alongside Mayor Chuck Espy.

“When the city form of government started, all three commissioners (known locally as the mayor and aldermen) used to run at-large,” Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said. “And the mayor was full time and the aldermen were part-time.”

Prior to 1912, the city’s previous form of government was a mayor-council form with nine part-time councilmen. Under the commission form of government, the mayor and aldermen’s positions were made full-time, something that is still in practice today.

In 2015, Flaggs openly stated his desire to amend the city’s charter, including the possibility of a change in the city’s form of government. However, he said, he was met with opposition from the aldermen at the time, Michael Mayfield Sr. and Willis Thompson. Mayfield still serves as Ward 1 Alderman, but Thompson has since been replaced by Ward 2 Alderman Alex Monsour.

“(My views) have not changed. I’m always open to anything that represents progress going forward,” Flaggs said. “The challenges are within the board of mayor and aldermen, and that’s why I decided to let (the idea of changing the city’s form of government) go. I rescinded myself; I’m not advocating anything as far as a change of government is concerned, but instead, I will leave it to the people to decide if they want something different.

“I’ve been in office for 10 years, and I think it’s unfair for me to continue to advocate for something that’s not going anywhere under the board’s authority,” he added. “I’m liable to leave it alone. It’s fighting an uphill battle; the gain is not worth the pain.”

Flaggs noted that he has “about a 90-percent voting record” with the current board, but said just because the commission form works for him now does not mean he is willing to change his beliefs.

Ward 2 Alderman Monsour said he believes the city’s current form of government is effective from a couple of standpoints: the speed with which board decisions are made and the benefit the commission form has for the people of Vicksburg.

“I like (the commission form) because we get a lot done in a short amount of time,” Monsour said, noting how his experience in state Legislature complements the mayor’s own political record. “I know some people would like us to change it, but I look at other cities that have five and seven members, and they can’t get a lot done. We have a board that works together now, but I can see the opposite side of it if you had a board that was one-sided and really didn’t look at both sides of the issues.”

Since he was elected, however, Monsour said the disagreements have been minimal and the board’s goal has remained the same: “I represent everybody in Vicksburg. Ward 1 or Ward 2, it doesn’t make a difference. We want what is best for the city.”

Mayfield did not respond to requests for comment.

The city’s charter was amended in 2015 to allow for the hire of an internal economic development position and codified that department heads were officers of the city and must live in the city but the city still retained the commission form.

The economic development position was never filled, as the role was filled through the formation of the Vicksburg-Warren County Economic Development Partnership. In addition to those two provisions, Flaggs said, the other amendment to the city’s charter states that the mayor and aldermen could recommend certain positions, but that recommendations must be confirmed by the entire board. For example, only the mayor can recommend a police chief, but the appointment must be confirmed by a vote of the mayor and aldermen.

Dr. Joseph “Dallas” Breen, executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government & Community Development at Mississippi State University, explained the historic use of the commission form of government.

Breen’s paper, “A Primer on Forms of Municipal Government in Mississippi & How to Change Them,” outlines the utility of forms of municipal government in the state, including the commission form.

“There’s not a perfect answer, a silver bullet to fix everything, because typically problems in a community are rooted in other areas. When you go through each form of government, you realize ‘Oh, these might not work for us,'” Breen said. “Because (the commission form) is so unique to Vicksburg and Clarksdale, there’s always a question of, ‘Do we run on an antiquated form of government?’ But the answer isn’t necessarily yes.

“Because it’s such a unique form, there’s always a question of is there something better,” he added. “Oftentimes, when people call for such a change, it’s borne out of anxiety and fear. A lot of times it’s not the form that’s causing the problem… it’s conflicts that take place.”