Even though the city of Columbus operates under a special charter, it functions like most municipalities throughout the state, John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development Executive Director Joseph “Dallas” Breen told a gathering of approximately 20 people Monday night.
Breen spoke at the Lee Home and Museum in downtown Columbus at a public event organized by A Better Columbus, giving insight on how municipal governments work. In addition to his role at the Stennis Institute, Breen is also a Mississippi State University Assistant Research Professor in Political Science and Public Administration.
In the state of Mississippi, a city’s organizational structure is determined by its city charter. At the development of the Mississippi Constitution in 1890, cities were given the opportunity to choose to keep their current charter or adopt a standard charter, in which Columbus chose to keep its private charter.
“If you’re a special charter, my suggestion, pretty much my only suggestion, would be to check your town charter (for rules of operation),” Breen said. “If you’ve got a question about how this is run, you need to go to your city charter… Some of the things you may hear Starkville or Jackson or Gulfport doing, (Columbus doesn’t) fall under those same conditions.”
Because of this special charter, the city operates as a mayor/council form of government but it’s different from how Mississippi defines a mayor/council form of government, Breen said.
Mississippi has three kinds of standard forms of government — mayor/board of aldermen, mayor/council and council/manager, with 95 percent of Mississippi municipalities operating under the mayor/board type of government.
Breen said the single greatest executive authority is that of “hire and fire.”
A mayor/council type typically designates the authority of hiring and firing employees to the mayor, denoting them a “strong mayor.” Under mayor/board, this power goes to the board, creating a “weak mayor.” While Columbus calls itself a mayor/council form of government, it operates as a mayor/board type because the hire and fire authority lies with the council rather than the mayor.
The mayor instead handles day to day operations and keeps the city running smoothly, Breen said. While the mayor cannot choose who works for the city, they still must manage and supervise all city employees.
“The council, as a whole, is the predominant body for the city of Columbus,” Breen said. “The city of Columbus cannot dictate what individual employees do at any given time — that’s up to the mayor.”
The council is in charge of making sure there are people to ensure the city operates efficiently and effectively. No other entity other than the mayor or council or board is designated the hire and fire power, according to the Mississippi Attorney General. Breen said in order to pass things and move forward and have a better government, the council has to know that it has certain rights and responsibilities, as does the mayor.
“In this form of government, there isn’t power vested to one individual or singular entity,” Breen said. “It relies on the majority of the board. The mayor may have veto power, but the board can override veto power, so there are always checks and balances.”
One difference between Columbus and similar mayor/board governments is the number of council members — six — which is laid out in the city charter.
Typically, boards have five or seven members to prevent the possibility of a tie. Six council members allows for more opportunities for ties, giving the mayor more power than a typical mayor in a mayor/board form of government.
“One of the underlying assumptions is that six was done on purpose so that the mayor would have a little stronger voice because he or she would be responsible to vote more often than a typical mayor/board mayor,” Breen said.
Cities can always change their charters with a majority vote from its elected officials. Breen said no one form of government is perfect — it is just up to the city to decide what is best. The only way to ensure governments run effectively and efficiently, he said, is for the mayor and council to find ways to cooperate.
“For your city government to operate efficiently, it has to get along to a certain extent,” Breen said. “The reason being if you have the council and the mayor going back and forth, the people that end up suffering are the people that represent each of those (districts).”