VICKSBURG — Its cannons, historic homes and landmarks aren’t Vicksburg’s only throwback to history.
Its municipal government is a relic from when the city was younger, smaller and the issues confronting city leaders were easier to handle.
Since 1913, Vicksburg has operated under the commission form of government approved by the Mississippi Legislature in 1908. It’s a concept of municipal government that uses a three-member commission with one member serving as mayor and the other commissioners are over different city departments. Each of the three has an equal vote.
At one time, the form of government was popular for the majority of the state’s cities.
In the mid-1980s, however, most changed to other forms because the commission form proved either too cumbersome or because its at-large election of commissioners did not pass the one-man, one-vote test under the federal Voting Rights Act, said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
Most of the larger cites, he said, went to the mayor-council form of government, which has a five- to nine-member board, and the elected mayor is the chief executive of the city.
“Vicksburg’s government is one of the last of a dying breed,” he said. “It survived by setting up two districts. There are only two other commission forms of government remaining in the state: Clarksdale and Charleston.”
Clarksdale and Charleston, he said, are not traditional commission forms, because they have five-member boards elected from districts.
In 1998, Vicksburg businessman Harry Sharp tried unsuccessfully to get a special election to change the city’s form of government to a council-manager form of government with a council and a hired professional manager handling the city’s day-to-day business.
More recently, Mayor George Flaggs Jr. has said he wants to see the city adopt a mayor-council form of government, citing problems getting a consensus on issues.
Flaggs, who opposed Sharp’s attempt in 1998, said he changed his mind about the commission form after taking office “because I got to find out how it works. (Alderman Michael) Mayfield told me one vote.”
He went into office on an ambitious platform of changing the way the city works, including a slate of candidates for key appointed city offices. That plan died July 10 when Mayfield and South Ward Alderman Willis Thompson formed a coalition that reappointed Police Chief Walter Armstrong and Fire Chief Charles Atkins while refusing to consider his candidates for fire and police chiefs and city judge.
Flaggs said the title of “Mayor and Aldermen” suggests “the mayor is distinctly different from the aldermen. That’s not the case, we’re equal. We’ve got an equal vote.
“I think this city needs someone on a daily basis controlling things and working with folks and making sure everything is coordinated. This form of government in my opinion is antiquated. It’s obsolete. Russia wouldn’t work under this form of government.
“There’s something wrong when any one of us spends 40 percent of the day trying to get another vote,” Flaggs said.
Changing the government, Mayfield said, would be “the biggest mistake you could ever make, period.”
“If you go adding five or six more people to the board, you’ve added just that much more liability to the city, just that much more distinction to the city, then you have to worry about racial lines, worry about the different facilities in which they would run,” he said.
Thompson agreed, saying the current form of government brings accountability.
Sharp said a lack of accountability is the reason he started the drive 15 years ago to change the form of government.
“The system we have to work under makes it very difficult for progressive thinking and change and getting anything done,” he said.
When he dealt with the city on issues involving downtown businesses, he said, “Seemingly no one could take responsibility for making any decisions.”
“They’d pass the buck from one department to another, and then you’d go to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, and they would pass the buck, and they couldn’t make a decision without another person on board,” he said.
With a community as diverse as Vicksburg, he said, having only two wards and one aldermen representing each “limits the point of view of all these different people who live here. That doesn’t make any sense.”
“When you have every type of ethnic and economic group in this city, why would you limit their representatives to just two? We need to be more inclusive and have more ideas.”
Wiseman said the council-manager and mayor-council forms of government would be the best choices for Vicksburg.
Although the council-manager is the most common form of city government nationally and is used in Pascagoula and Gautier, he said it is mostly opposed in Mississippi “because the people have the old-fashioned feeling that if someone’s going to have responsibilities for the day-to-day operations of government, they ought to vote for them.”
Having the mayor as the city’s chief executive, he said, “relieves the council of having to deal with all the petty things involved in government, because the mayor handles those things on a daily basis. They have more time to spend on the larger affairs of city government. The mayor has a veto, which the council can override with a 2/3 vote.”
Under the commission form, Wiseman said, accountability is a problem.
“You have a board that makes policy and also has a part in policy execution,” he said. “It’s hard to fix accountability. The mayor is more or less tied in with the other commissioners, who can obstruct or slow down the process.”
The difference in a mayor-council form, he said, is the mayor is over the significant day-to-day operations of the city and has significant discretion over how the policy of the city is carried out.
It is a form of government to consider in a city that is growing, he said.
“This is a good time to look at changing the form of government as the city is growing,” he said.
Wiseman said people wanting to change a city’s form of government cannot look to the board to initiate the process.
“Changing the form of government is citizen-driven,” he said. “They get a petition, get signatures and campaign, like an election … the successful changes are where people realize a concept, have a good cross-section of the community educated in the form of government and its advantages and they educate the public.”