Room for reform? Future of Vicksburg’s governance rests on residents’ voices

Published 4:00 am Saturday, October 21, 2023

Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a series covering why Vicksburg’s city government is established the way it is, what options exist for change and how residents could go about doing so. 

If Vicksburg’s form of government were to change after 111 years, the change would have to be initiated by residents.

After a late 1990s effort failed to alter the City’s commission-style government and current Mayor George Flaggs Jr.’s efforts were met with opposition in 2015, Flaggs said that much is apparent.

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“I decided to let it go and let the people have the voice in that, not me,” Flaggs said. “I was being accused of grabbing for power, so I rescinded myself. I’m not going to advocate anything as it relates to a change going forward. I’m just going to let this form of government rise out to the people, and if they decide there’s something they want to do differently, (they can).”

“When you look at the charter, I am the person responsible for executing the orders,” Flaggs said. “And as of today, we are about $85 million better off than when I came in.”

In separate online surveys conducted by The Vicksburg Post, 78 percent of respondents said they do not feel adequately represented by the local government and 69 percent said they would change the city’s form of government if they could.

How to create change

Dr. Dallas Breen, executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government & Community Development at Mississippi State University, said discontent is not uncommon among a population. However, before any change can be made, the population must first understand the current form of government and its pros and cons.

“I think that’s what we see across the state, more often than not. People don’t want to address anything until something has happened,” Breen said. “We’re more reactive as a populace instead of proactive, and I don’t say that in a bad way. It’s just (that) we don’t know there’s a problem until the problem’s already upon us.”

Vicksburg operates under the commission form, but could, in theory, switch to any of the following forms of government: Council-manager, code charter or mayor-council form.

In order to change the city’s form of government, the following must happen:

  • One or more petitions, in similar form and substance, addressed to the mayor, can ask that an election be held to determine whether or not the municipality should abandon its existing form of government and become organized under a mayor-council form of government. The petition must be signed by at least 10 percent of the qualified electors (the voting population). Based on Census data, that number is approximately 1,597 people.
  • Once a petition has been filed with the city clerk, the clerk will endorse the filing date upon the petition and then, within 10 days of filing, verify the signatures by comparing them to the voter registration list and poll books. The clerk then delivers the petition to the mayor, together with a clerk’s certificate showing the total number of qualified electors and the number of qualified electors who have signed the petition.
  • If it appears from the petition(s) and the clerk’s certificate that the petition(s) is proper, it is the duty of the council or board, within five days, to order and provide for the holding of a special election in the municipality not less than 20 days nor more than 60 days from the date of making such order.
  • A special election must be held no less than 30 days or more than 60 days from the date of ordering the special election. If a special election occurs during this time period, the matter can be referred to and voted upon at the general election. All special elections are conducted as other elections in the city.

During a special election, the citizens vote to keep the current form of government or change to a new form. As necessary, voters would also determine formats for a new form of government. For example, if a municipality is voting to change to a council-manager form, the voters would decide whether aldermen would be elected at-large or along ward lines.

The closest Vicksburg has gotten to a petition being signed was in 1996, when resident Harry Sharp petitioned for a change to the council-manager form. However, an open letter was published condemning Sharp’s efforts and signed by community leaders including then-mayor Robert Walker and Flaggs, who at the time was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. At that point, efforts were abandoned.

Pros and Cons of Commission Form

Historically, the pros and cons of a commission-style government lie in the swiftness with which a governing body moves as well as the accountability of a smaller group of people than in other forms of government.

In a commission form of government, more responsibility lies on fewer people (in Vicksburg’s case, three people) and those people are traditionally paid more for their expanded roles. In Vicksburg, the mayor’s annual salary is approximately $126,000 and the full-time aldermen are paid approximately $88,000 each.

Ward 2 Alderman Alex Monsour said based on his experience in the state Legislature and conversations with other city officials across Mississippi, Vicksburg’s government style is often envied.

“Everybody that we run across in any forum that we go to (is) in envy of Vicksburg, because they say we all are so fortunate to have the form of government that we have,” Monsour said. “Now these are other elected officials, and they are sitting in a box where there are five or seven people sitting there and they cannot come together on a solution. It stalls your city.”

However, Monsour acknowledged that a board is only as good as its members, and rampant disagreements are just as likely to “stall” a city.

For example, in 2015 Flaggs made several appointments to city positions that were shut down by then-aldermen Willis Thompson and Michael Mayfield Sr. The city’s charter was ultimately changed to more adequately define the mayor and aldermen’s positions and create an economic development position within the city. However, the economic development position was never filled and the concept was replaced with the formation of the Vicksburg-Warren Economic Development Partnership.

Monsour was elected in Thompson’s place and has served as Ward 2 alderman for the last two terms. Mayfield still serves as Ward 1 alderman. Mayfield did not respond to requests for comment.

Since the current board members have been in office, Flaggs said he has an “almost 90 percent” voting record with the two aldermen.

“If you looked at the form of government prior to 2017, yes, you saw a government that really was kind of mad at each other and couldn’t get much done,” Monsour said, citing the growth of Washington Street businesses as an example of progress made by the current board. “The way I look at this form of government, we’re fortunate to be able to move at the speed at which we move, but I can also look back and see where it could be detrimental.”

Breen said from his vantage point, there is no way to identify a magic fix for any issues in municipal government. In his paper, “A Primer on Forms of Municipal Government in Mississippi & How to Change Them,” Breen detailed the pros and cons of the commission form.

Pros are: Government structure is simplified; power and authority are centralized in a few individuals who can be held accountable for their actions.

Cons are: Power may be too centralized, as those who make policy are responsible for its execution; the division of administrative authority among and between the commissioners tends to narrow the focus of the commissioners, rather than seeing the municipality as a whole; absence of a chief executive lessens the likelihood of strong policy leadership.

“If there’s a majority and it goes against what other people are sensing, you’re talking about half of your town not necessarily being represented because you’re talking to two aldermen and a mayor,” Breen said. “In a city like Vicksburg, you have 10,500 people per ward and the mayor, so there’s room for speculation. There’s room for uneasiness in people, especially the ones who are paying attention.

“The truth is that any of the forms of government can be effective if elected officials understand their duties and obligations to the electors and defer to the individuals who are given powers that are not delegated to them by statute,” Breen added. “There are fewer people in this form of government, with much more power than any other form of government.”

While he could not speak for the other board members, Monsour said he does his best to serve Vicksburg and would continue to do so no matter the form of government.

“Whether it’s three, five or seven (aldermen), you’ve got the same thing going on. You have people that want to work together for the betterment of the city and the way you move forward. You’re still going to stall out at times. whether you have three, five or seven,” Monsour said. “I say we thank God for what we’ve got. There will be discussion in the future of what we should do with the city government, but I think we need to utilize it to our fullest potential now, while we have it.

“I think people need to look at what we’ve done over these past two terms and ask themselves, because ultimately, I’ve always said this, the people make the choice of who they want to run their city, and they either make good choices or they make bad choices.”