Wednesday morning, when the town’s election commission ruled that only one of the five affidavit ballots would be counted, the outcome of the Caledonia mayor’s relied on that single vote.
Tied after the results of Tuesday election were counted, incumbent mayor Bill Lawrence and challenger Mitch Wiggins waited for the commission to announce whose name was on that lone ballot.
“I wanted to be mayor in the worst kind of way,” Lawrence said. “But when they called out ‘Wiggins,’ I admit I had a sense of relief, to tell you the truth. I think somebody is going to find out that being mayor is an awful lot of work.”
That someone is Wiggins, now the mayor-elect after one term as alderman.
Noting the dramatic finish — Wiggins had 199 votes to Lawrence’s 198 — the mayor-elect thanked the commission for its work and acknowledged the division in the community over who would serve as mayor.
“The biggest thing is that the town is divided right now and I want to reach out to everyone so that we can come together as a community to address the issues we face,” Wiggins said.
Those divisions may have been exacerbated by the election on June 6. In that election, Lawrence led in two counts and was tied in another. The election commission threw out those results on June 8 when it was discovered a commissioner improperly handled the ballot box.
Lawrence told The Dispatch at the time of the commission’s decision that he felt the election had been taken from him.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit former town marshal Richard Hayes filed against Wiggins and the town, alleges Wiggins, while acting in his role as an alderman, defamed Hayes’ character by spreading rumors that he was having an adulterous affair with another town employee. Lawrence had unsuccessfully tried to mediate a meeting between Hayes and Wiggins before the suit was filed in February.
Wiggins previously told The Dispatch that the lawsuit was “an 11th-hour political tactic.”
How much those incidents have fueled the division is hard to say.
Brenda Willis, who just finished her fifth term on the town’s board of alderman and did not seek re-election, doubts either circumstance was especially divisive among town residents.
“I think the division really is just about how close the election was,” she said. “Bill had his people and Mitch had his. Now that the election is finally over, I’m confident the people of the town will come together.”
How difficult it will be to heal the wounds of the election is hard to predict, said Bill Darnell, who was elected to his 10th term on the Board of Aldermen Tuesday.
“There is a bit of a rift right now,” he said. “But we’ll get through it. We’ve had these kinds of elections before.”
Darnell and Quinn Parham are the only returning aldermen. They will be joined by newcomers Tammy McCool, Tyler Brock and Mark Furnari. The mayor and aldermen will be sworn in at 6 p.m. today at Town Hall.
The mayor-elect cited improving communications between town government and residents, repairs and expansion at Ola J. Pickett Park, infrastructure and attracting manufacturing/industry to the town as his main priorities.
“We need to improve out communications, not only on the board, but with the people in the community,” said Wiggins, who wants to modernize the town’s website so it can provide information for residents, including town financial statements and board minutes.
When it comes to bringing in industry, Wiggins said the town must be willing to invest.
“There are a lot of things that we need to be addressing, and most of them require money,” Wiggins said. “There are only two ways for a town to raise capital. One is to raise taxes. The other is to try to bring in industry. I’m not talking about something like PACCAR or Yokohama. But I do believe there are smaller manufacturing opportunities, with maybe 100 employees. That’s the kind of industry we’re looking for. We don’t have any factories in town now, and working with the (Mississippi) Development Authority to find a good match is important for our town.”
For his part, Lawrence said he is proud the strides the town has made under his tenure as mayor.
“The park is in the best shape it’s ever been in. We’ve expanded it and made all kinds of improvements, and that was one of the things I was most interested in as mayor,” Lawrence said. “There have been a lot of good things that have happened since I’ve been mayor. I’m also proud of the harmony, and just the mood, since I came into office. Up until this election, everybody seemed to get along.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]cdispatch.com.