By Terri Ferguson Smith / email@example.com
The Meridian Star
Voters in Meridian have chosen a new mayor and three new members of the city council, leaving many to wonder what will be different when the new administration and new council take office.
Mayor-elect Percy Bland, a Democrat, defeated first-term incumbent Cheri Barry on election day Tuesday. During party primaries and runoffs, voters sent three councilman home, prompting the question, "What do voters want?"
"They voted for change. They voted for change in county government, city council, and mayor," Bland said, referring to not only municipal elections but elections in 2011 for the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors, during which one incumbent was voted out. Another did not seek reelection at that time.
"They want good government, good open, transparent government," Bland said. "Especially the mayor's race. It was an astounding vote out for change in government. What I like to see is people who have been voiceless in the political process to be a part of the political process for the first time. More of that is needed."
Bland is preparing for July 1, when he and the council will be sworn in.
"What we are doing right now is putting a strong transition team in place so on day one, we'll have more data to deal with what we need to deal with our first three to six months in office," Bland said. "We are picking a strong team to have behind me and dealing with some of the main issues that the voters have talked about for a long time."
Dr. George Thomas, educator and Ward One Councilman, said although the voters have asked for change, it remains to be seen what change they want.
"They are saying we want a different type of representation with the election of a new mayor," Thomas said. "I assume they want a change in the direction of leadership."
Although a voter turnout of 45 percent is considered good, Thomas said he wonders why more people don't vote.
"I don't know why you would register to vote and then not go vote," Thomas said.
"About half of the people who could have voted did not vote," Bland said. "Of those who voted, that's what they are saying. They want change. I don't think any one person can specify what that change is. I hope that people will let the council and the mayor know what they want."
Thomas said many people appear to be discontented with taxes, public safety, and law enforcement.
As for his priority when the new council takes office, Thomas said the city's infrastructure needs will have to continue to be addressed.
"The freshwater system and the wastewater system are going to have to be dealt with soon," Thomas said.
But there are social issues as well, Thomas said.
"How do we get people out of poverty? Is it going to be through jobs, through better education, through more training programs?" Thomas asked.
Thomas added that there are good programs available for those who take advantage of them, including Ross Collins Career and Technical Center, Meridian Community College, and Mississippi State University, all of which are available to students here.
"We need to get more people to take advantage of the education and training opportunities that are here," Thomas said.
Kenneth Dustin Markham, a local attorney elected to represent Ward Two, says voters obviously want change.
"That's not necessarily to say individuals who were previously in office weren't doing the job that they could have done, but the citizens wanted something new to move the city forward. They saw that the city of Meridian had made some advancements, but had not fully lived up to its full potential of what it can be. They wanted a change in leadership to make sure that the city continued to thrive and grow and prosper."
When Markham enters office, his first task will be to review the city's budget, he said.
"After assessing what the previous officials have been pushing for as well as some of the things that we as new leadership want to do, I think one of the first things we need to tackle are things concerning our youth."
Markham said that includes finding ways to improve the city's schools.
"Finding new and innovative ideas that will allow our students to be more sound when they leave our schools and actually finish. We want our children to thrive at the collegiate and graduate school level going forward," Markham said. "I think that's imperative to what type of community that Meridian becomes."
Improving public education will in turn, he said, help curtail some of the youth violence in the city.
"We have to make sure our students are doing the very best that they can in school. The better they are performing, the less likely they are to drop out because they are motivated to come to school. They are motivated to make good grades and finish high school. We have to put some programs in place, trade school programs for those kids who aren't really academically driven and other specific youth programs that will help these kids have different options when they get through with high school."
Incumbent Ward Three Councilwoman Barbara Henson, who owns and operates a day care center, said she thinks the changes will be beneficial.
"The voters have definitely spoken their wishes. I don't think I am as surprised at the new ones coming in as that the older ones didn't stay," Henson said. I think it's a real healthy thing that we have young people there. They are more in with the times and the way things are going. I think it's going to be wonderful. They are energetic and bring new things to the table."
Henson said she is preparing herself for the changes in the new administration. Having worked with three different mayors during her tenure on the City Council, Henson said each mayor has a different leadership style and she is anxious to see which department heads the mayor-elect will retain.
Kim Houston, an insurance agent, was elected to represent Ward Four. Houston said the election results shows that residents are ready for something different to happen in Meridian.
"I think people have finally gotten the message that if we keep going the same way we've been going, we're going to continue to get the same results," Houston said. "People have put different folks in place to help move Meridian to the next level."
During her campaign, Houston often noted that youth problems in Meridian were in need of attention. As she prepares to start her term of office, she said she wants to do everything possible to improve the city for youth.
"As leaders we have a responsibility to get the fire started," Houston said. "It's going to take the entire community. If we come knocking on your door, not asking for your vote but asking for your support for a youth program at church or at another location, we need people who are going to come to us and say, 'I want to help.'"
And if there are problems at school, parents should be prepared to cooperate, she said.
"If we try to go through the school system to work with your children, we don't need you to say 'No, I don't want it. Not my child.' It's going to actually take the entire community."
The mayor and city council cannot succeed in fixing the problems with youth without the community's cooperation, she said.
Houston said she is already building relationships with school officials and with area pastors about implementing youth programs.
The new councilman for Ward Five is Randy Hammon, a retired engineer who said he sees the message for change as coming from voters who are tired of one area of the city getting more attention than others.
"The voters are saying what they have said for a number of years but did not have the candidates to run to get that done. They are tired of not seeing some of the money spread around outside of downtown in the rest of the neighborhoods and the rest of the city," Hammon said. "Annexation is great if you are going to stabilize and keep the rest of your infrastructure in place. You can't keep annexing, because annexing costs a tremendous amount of money."
Hammon said his first priority is to stabilize the infrastructure in the neighborhoods.
"We need to get people back into these neighborhoods, get people back in these homes."
Other cities have succeeded in fighting urban blight, and Hammon said he believes Meridian can do so as well through better, stronger ordinances and codes.
"This will keep the people in the city, it will keep people paying taxes," Hammon said. "Your tax base goes up and you don't lose like we've been losing."
The city's crime problem is tied to the issue of abandoned, dilapidated housing, as well, he said, adding that police could use a law enforcement procedure called SARA, which means to scan, analyze, respond and assess.
"If you don't use those things, if you don't do things by analysis, you really don't change things," Hammon said. "Crime is tied to our infrastructure. If we clean up our infrastructure, that's going to reduce crime. If we update the ordinances dealing with bad behavior, you are going to reduce crime.
"Then the police have a fighting chance to deal with the real crime. When you are living out there and you're paying taxes for as long as you have and you don't see your streets done. You're trying to hang on and be a good citizen and continue to pay your taxes ... as I've said before, we've increased taxes on property that wasn't worth what they taxed them on the first time, to make up the difference for the people leaving. That makes no sense."