Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn took exception Tuesday to seven months of negative public comments directed at the Starkville Board of Aldermen by lashing out after a former alderman’s criticism and describing such statements as a “disgrace in the sight of God.”
Starkville’s seven sitting aldermen have not been strangers to public criticism since taking over in July. Once in office, almost 20 residents lambasted the board for unceremoniously relieving long-serving former Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill from her position. Dissent also accompanied several other board decisions, including an attempt to limit public discourse through a cellphone ban and an upcoming review of sidewalk and landscape design ordinances, whose intent was never clearly explained by aldermen.
The turmoil came to a head Tuesday after former Alderman Mary Lee Beal blasted the board over a narrow Starkville police chief search — Board Attorney Chris Latimer would go on to say the city is following the law by advertising in two local newspapers — and sparred with Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn over her perceived knowledge of the city’s sidewalk-required district.
“It hurts me to see that we elected officials have to sit here and take this from the public — how they sit and talk about us,” Vaughn said. “We were elected by the people … we are human beings. We try to make the best decisions. This board is talked about so bad. It just brings shame to my heart for the people to sit out here and talk about us like they do not have families, like they do not belong to someone. God is not pleased with what they sit out here and say.
“We have feelings. It’s a shame … You elected all seven of us to serve, but you’re so disgraceful and so unfaithful (to the city),” he added. “You never say anything about what the board (does). It’s always something bad that this board is doing. It’s a shame on you all. It’s a disgrace in the sight of God.”
Vaughn clarified his statement during a brief recess by saying he thinks aldermen deserve more respect from constituents and that constant negativity in the public domain hurts Starkville’s image and reputation.
“I don’t feel like it’s the right thing to do. I wouldn’t come to every board meeting (and make) negative comments about the decisions we’ve made. I’d be at home resting. I wouldn’t waste my time,” he said. “Honestly, it doesn’t bother me, but it just looks bad for the city of Starkville and all of the people here.”
Beal first took aim at how the city publicized its vacant police chief position. The long-serving alderman took exception to the advertising’s scope and time window. The Dispatch previously confirmed Starkville police Capt. Frank Nichols is one of two applicants for the position. He is expected to be the only internal candidate to emerge from SPD.
“You all know how much I love and care for this city, and how much I want to see this city progress,” she said. “I am absolutely appalled that you all would advertise in two newspapers for one week for the chief of police position. There may be someone well qualified in the city, but your responsibility is to seek the very best person that you can seek for the position. I have not seen any comments (saying) that anyone was opposed to this, so I’d assume it’s a silent majority and everyone is in favor of this. It would appear … that you all have your mind made up and you’re going through with the process.”
Beal then set her sights on Wynn. Earlier in the meeting, the Ward 2 alderman read a letter from an anonymous constituent who complained about Starkville’s inability to attract big-box retail developments like Columbus. The author suggested Starkville utilize financing mechanisms, such as tax increment financing agreements (TIFs), and easing up on ordinances “that make Starkville seem anti-business, like sidewalks on the bypass.” Wynn ended the letter by saying it was good to receive correspondence from constituents who share her views.
Last year, Wynn and Ward 3 Alderman David Little successfully garnered board support for a comprehensive review of Starkville’s sidewalk and landscaping ordinances. Both said the ordinances, in their current form, place restrictive financial burdens upon developers. Wynn never clarified what the goals of a comprehensive review would entail, and the board would later shoot down a compromise by Ward 4 Alderman Jason Walker to form a review committee comprised of aldermen, developers and local activists.
“If you look at the current sidewalk ordinance, there’s nothing on the bypass that requires them to build a sidewalk,” Walker immediately corrected. “I’d like to inform that citizen that the sidewalk ordinance already prohibits sidewalk development along the bypass. To clear the facts up about where sidewalks are and are not required I think will go a long way in trying to change people’s perception because this case is an incorrect perception of what’s actually being required by our current ordinance.”
Wynn rebuked Walker, saying, “I’m certainly glad that’s an opinion of yours, but it’s certainly not a fact.”
“That’s a fact,” Walker countered before Mayor Parker Wiseman asked aldermen to speak one at a time.
Beal approached the board after the exchange and criticized Wynn over her comments.
“Miss Wynn, you need to learn or find out for sure exactly what the requirements are when you talk about certain areas for sidewalks. If they’re not allowed … near the bypass, then they’re not allowed,” Beal said. “I know you are very much against sidewalks. I know you want to do away with the sidewalk ordinance, but you need to think again about what’s best for Starkville.
She added, “Approximately two months ago when the discussion was coming up about the cellphones, with all due respect to you, you said you wanted respect. Miss Wynn, you will be given respect when you earn it.”
Beal left the board meeting before Vaughn’s speech while Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins asked Latimer to clarify how the city followed the law surrounding job advertising.
“Alderman Vaughn, let me say this to you: The people that praise us, they don’t attend these board meetings most of the time,” Wynn said. “They’re the silent majority in Starkville, I can assure you of that. I believe in my heart that we’re not a business-as-usual board … You all know it was a hard roll here, but I got here. Guess what? Our town wanted change. If they didn’t want change, Alderman Vaughn, four of us would not be here.”
Following city elections, the board experienced changeover in four seats. Only two aldermen — Little and Wynn — unseated former incumbents. The rest won re-election, ran unopposed or defeated a new challenger for their respective seat.
“We shook it up. We need to keep going,” Wynn continued. “Guess what? I’m on the ship and I’ll be here until 2017. Who knows, I might decide to run again. We’ll see.”
Wynn also took a shot at Beal, referencing her failed attempt to secure the Democratic mayoral nomination last summer.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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