By CARL SMITH
Growing tension between Starkville leaders emerged Tuesday during municipal facilities discussion when Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins publicly called for a change of city leadership.
Perkins, an outspoken advocate for Carver Drive improvements, criticized the board’s passage of a 20-year plan to improve City Hall and Starkville Police Department facilities while failing to provide relief to the residents of Carver Drive. By approving the projects, the board has side-stepped public referendums reflecting voter will, he said during Tuesday’s discussion.
“It seems like there’s a growing movement to do whatever you want to do and disregard the voice of the people. It doesn’t take a law degree, doesn’t take an engineering degree to understand that when the people speak, the people have spoken,” Perkins said Tuesday. “This is not (a) dictatorship … in Starkville ... You look for dictatorship in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq (and) Iran.
“All of a sudden we can get $8 million two weeks after the Carver Drive drainage improvement, but yet the board didn’t want to commit $50,000 of unbudgeted funds for Carver Drive. What a shame. That is ridiculous,” Perkins added. “We need new leadership here in Starkville … Next year is election year. (Citizens will) find people knocking on your door, wanting your vote. Demand answers ... Vote your conviction and your will.”
When sought for clarification of his comment on leadership change, Perkins did not return phone calls placed Wednesday through Saturday.
Perkins also pulled items off the board’s consent agenda in its last meeting, a move he would continue through the term, he said Tuesday. Board processes allow the removal of any item from the consent agenda when an alderman deems it necessary for discussion.
The municipal projects vote passed 4-3 Tuesday, with Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn and Perkins opposing. Approval allows the city to improve deteriorating city services, aldermen said, while providing a legacy move for the board which does not raise taxes.
Reacting to Perkins’ call for new leadership, city officials acknowledged building tensions from the longest-tenured alderman.
“I was disappointed by that comment, but I wasn’t particularly surprised. Alderman Perkins has sought to drive a wedge between himself and his colleagues throughout much of this term,” Mayor Parker Wiseman said Friday. “And in spite of this, the board has worked hard to achieve many great things, often times without the participation from Alderman Perkins.”
Although Perkins has strongly advocated for Carver Drive improvements, Wiseman, Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker and Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas noted Perkins’ lack of attendance for numerous capital improvements work sessions. They said active participation in those meetings are critical to developing projects lists and finding compromises to fix the issues.
“He doesn’t attend annual strategic planning sessions of the board. Then when the board seeks action on ideas that come from those sessions, he opposes them,” Wiseman said. “I don’t believe that is the style of leadership our community wants from its elected officials. I am proud of the leadership that most of the board members have shown, and I look forward to continuing to work with members who want to move our community forward.”
Aldermen also said existing tension is evident when looking at numerous past 5-2 votes where Perkins and Vaughn voted against many issues pertaining to the city.
“Six months ago — I stood behind this then — this board made decisions based on what was best for the city of Starkville. If I was outvoted, then the next votes we had were independent votes. Nobody held grudges about previous votes,” Parker said. “There is no doubt this is not the case now. Unfortunately a few meetings ago, Henry (Vaughn) insinuated (the board) does not do anything for (wards) 6 and 7.”
Vaughn was also unavailable for comment at press time.
In a city expenditure report for 2007-2011 dated Nov. 22, figures show the previous administration only spent a combined $405,000 in wards 6 and 7 since 2007 for overlays, capital street projects and drainage, while the current board has spent over $3.5 million on those same projects. When both administrations’ spending totals since 2007 on the three issues are combined, Ward 6 tops the list with a combined $2.09 million — the most spending in any of the seven wards — while Ward 7’s combined $1.49 million comes in third.
“This has been going on months and months where we’ve been listening to insinuation we, as a board, have selectively decided not to put money in wards 6 and 7. The fact is more monies have been spent on infrastructure in (wards) 6 and 7 (than most other wards),” Dumas said. “If someone wants to talk about leadership, Carver Drive has been a problem for over 20 years. The only consistent thing from those years is the alderman this issue is impacting. He’s not been able to address this issue. I think the Carver Drive issue is a drum that’s been beaten for all these years and it has gotten to a point where he is taking his ball and going home without figuring out a way to work with the board. It’s not ‘My way or the highway’ — that’s not how we, as a board, will operate. I see there being nothing done on Carver (Drive) until there’s a way in which they can insert themselves into the conversation of the board. It’s been a 5-2 carte blanche ‘I’m voting against everything in this community’ mind set. They need to be a part of the board, not consistently working against it.”
Sistrunk said she and other aldermen have reached out to “bridge the gap between wards 6 and 7” numerous times with few results. Polarization between ideologies, she said, is a reflection of how politics has transformed into “us-against-them” mentalities at the state and national levels.
“As far as leadership, the only constant up at the board over the past years is Mr. Perkins himself. He’s the tenured member of the board. When he calls for leadership change, one can only assume he means himself, too,” Sistrunk said. “Compromise doesn’t mean one side gets everything it wants. Effective leaders will help find or negotiate common ground and compromise.”
Dumas and Sistrunk both applauded the board’s leadership in finding a solution to the decades-long issue with SPD facilities, while Parker said solving the situation was a goal of his and other area Republicans’ election pitch.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the project will be something this board is remembered for,” Parker said. “The three reasons the previous bond issue failed were the tax increase, the total cost and people didn’t want the police station to be the main building for the city of Starkville. (Tuesday’s action) took care of all of those concerns. Everybody had their ideas, but I think it was time to make a decision for the community and to do it without a tax increase.”
As for establishing some semblance of board harmony, Wiseman said aldermen must work together to solve the city’s problems fairly and in the best fashion. For the most part, he said, the board has worked well together to keep a balanced budget, grow a rainy-day fund while maintaining low city tax rates and maintain a high quality of life for residents.
“When we have division just for the sake of division or because relationships are strained, that is a very bad outcome. We need to be the type of city that takes on difficult issues, works toward consensus and disagrees agreeably when consensus is not possible,” he said. “We must continue to take on big issues and find ways to blend different perspectives into decisions that result in progress for Starkville.”
Wiseman, Parker, Sistrunk and Dumas all said they would run for their respective seats during the next election cycle. Calls to Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey and Carver went unreturned as of press time.
“This is the time where a lot of aldermen are feeling fatigue. I’ve kind of been uncertain about it, but after Tuesday’s meeting I will definitely run again,” Sistrunk said. “Our success showed the good we can do as an elected body. I think the voting population in Starkville makes good decisions and understands how to differentiate between issues and emotions. At a local level, I can make a difference; however, I have to be willing to work with everyone sitting on the board and the public to make that difference.”
Section editor Nathan Gregory contributed to this report.