Columbus Mayor Keith Gaskin was supposed to talk to Columbus Exchange Club on Thursday about his first 100 days in office — a landmark he will technically reach on Sunday.
When he took the podium at Lion Hills Center, he quickly dispensed with that plan with a bit of ironic humor.
“It’s just been a bed of roses. Everything is going my way,” Gaskin joked dryly as the audience broke into laughter.
Gaskin then turned his attention to one particular day of his administration — Tuesday — when a majority bloc of four city council members shut down the mayor’s efforts to have a forensic audit of city finances and took other action that jeopardized his staffing plans.
Those actions, “caught me by surprise,” he told the audience.
“I’m extremely disappointed in their actions,” Gaskin said. “I stayed calm about it. Because I feel like we’re doing the right thing, and when you’re doing the right thing … it’s going to work out.”
On Tuesday, following presentations from two forensic auditing firms that quoted prices for their services ranging from $23,000 to $275,000, the council rejected having such an audit by a 4-2 vote. Gaskin had wanted the council to wait until Oct. 19 to decide. Further, they voted not to accept any private donations toward a forensic audit, something the mayor had publicly suggested could defray the city’s cost.
Later in the council meeting, the same voting bloc ordered the city to begin advertising for permanent chief operations and financial officers, as well as a city registrar, despite Gaskin’s promise of a new organizational chart proposal that would change or eliminate some of those positions.
On Thursday, Gaskin first said he trusted those councilmen were doing what they thought was best for the city. As his speech to the Exchange Club continued, he began characterizing those council members’ conduct — particularly the “disagreeable” tone the meeting took at times — as “political theater.” He said the council meeting should be a “wake-up call to the community.”
“If you’re watching the city council and they are not acting professional, that has an impact,” Gaskin said. “I’ve had that conversation with each and every one of them.
“I’m optimistic. … I’m not going to judge them for their decisions or their actions,” he later added. “I refer to it as political theater. They may very well think they are being very serious and this is how they feel.”
Gaskin also took specific aim at Joseph Mickens and Stephen Jones, councilmen for Ward 2 and 5, respectively, who ran unopposed in the 2021 municipal elections and who were part of the four-vote bloc who derailed Gaskin on Tuesday.
“We had two candidates who ran for city council … unopposed,” Gaskin said. “I would say that’s never a good thing. I hope if I decide to run again in four years, if there’s somebody who thinks they have something to offer and would be a good challenge to my administration, they should run and I would welcome that.
“We need good people running for office who are serious about the serious business of the city,” he added. “And if you don’t take anything else away from my speech … the city has serious, serious problems. It’s time for serious minds to come together and get our city back on the right track.”
With the council’s vote Tuesday, Gaskin has now turned the onus on the citizens to compel council members to reconsider a forensic audit, which he has pushed since he was a candidate.
“At the end of the day, it will be up to the citizens because you’re going to have to put pressure on the council to move this forward,” he said. “… It’s your money, and we’re supposed to be the best stewards possible of that money. If the current city council thinks we have been, then I’ve got news for them. And if they told you they don’t know what’s going on, I would encourage you to call them and ask them why. In fact I would encourage you to call your councilman and tell them you want a forensic audit.”
Beyond the audit, Gaskin also called on citizens to encourage councilmen to work with him generally.
“Issues we’re facing are serious and we can’t fix them overnight,” he said. “So what I’m asking the community to do is call your councilman or council person. If you don’t know who they are, find out. Call City Hall; we’ll tell you. Get their phone number. Tell them to work with the mayor and what he’s trying to do. … You don’t have to tell them that. If you agree with them, that’s fine. You can still call them and tell them you support them. But at least ask them why they’ve made those decisions. I think that’s fair.”
As for his own communication with the council, he said he’s working to improve that, and he again credited some of Tuesday’s “political theater” to frustrations from the council that they don’t hear from the mayor.
Part of the problem, he said, was his young administration trying to navigate what is permissible under the state’s open records law. He said legal counsel, other mayors and the Mississippi Municipal League have advised him to limit his direct communication about city business with council members outside public meetings.
Instead, Gaskin has largely deferred to interim COO Mark Alexander Jr. speaking with them directly, while the mayor shares his plans with the public through press conferences, social and conventional media.
In previous interviews with The Dispatch, Mickens and Jones have expressed that collaboration between council and the mayor’s office would go smoother if Gaskin would talk to the council.
“I’m working my way through that. Yes, I can do better and will strive to,” he said. “I find it hard that any of them don’t know what my policies are because I’m quite open about it with them — in meetings, with the media, I have a press conference after each council meeting. … I’m looking for more ways to make sure they are in the loop. I can’t just assume they are.”
Gaskin also addressed shoring up police department staffing and getting a handle on crime.
He said since 2018, 58 officers have left CPD for reasons ranging from pay to low department morale.
Even though he said crime problems in the city aren’t that different from those in other places, the perception that Columbus is “dangerous” is hurting its reputation.
“That image has gotten out there,” he said. “People are talking about it, and that’s why we’ve got to change it.”
The city is installing cameras in high-crime areas of the city. Two have already been installed with 10 others soon to follow. Gaskin said he plans to publicly release the potential placement of those cameras with data to back up why those areas were selected in order to get citizen input.
An Exchange Club member asked Gaskin why he wants to join the East Mississippi Community College Board of Trustees. Gaskin is one of three finalists for two board positions Lowndes County supervisors will appoint later this month.
Gaskin holds a doctorate in community college leadership and said he feels uniquely qualified to serve. Plus, he believes as mayor he should be “at as many tables as possible trying to solve problems.”
“I know what it takes to build consensus,” Gaskin said. “You don’t go in on those kinds of boards trying to bully your way and saying your way is the only way. People start digging their heels in when you do that.
“Do I think I’m the best candidate? Yes,” he added. “My feelings won’t be hurt if I’m not selected.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.