By TED CARTER
The new executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government & Community Development brings to the post a vast store of knowledge about public administration and how to effectively run local governments.
But Dr. Edward P. “Eddie” French can also tell you the best places to stop for a quick bite to eat along the highways between Bristol, Va., and Starkville. It’s the kind of expertise you can acquire if you commute from Southwest Virginia to Mississippi State University weekly in pursuit of a PhD.
“You do what you have to do to make things work,” says French, who traveled from Bristol to the Mississippi State campus for classes on Thursdays and Fridays.
Small wonder Marty Wiseman, the professor who taught the public policy and administration classes French took in earning his doctorate in public administration, descries French as “a very energetic type.”
Wiseman still marvels at how French would show up for classes at then “turn around and go back Friday afternoons.”
French went on to serve on the MSU faculty with Wiseman and last week officially became Wiseman’s successor as head of the Stennis Institute for Government & Community Development, an entity created with the help of the late Sen. John Stennis to assist local governments with research, service training and technical guidance.
French, a full professor in MSU’s political science and public administration department, led the institution as interim director after Wiseman’s December 2013 retirement. Before joining the Institute, French served as MSU’s coordinator of graduate studies for political science and public administration.
“He wrote the book on public administration” for small town America, Wiseman says of French, referring to a 2005 book titled “Managing America’s Small Communities” which French co-wrote with David H. Foltz.
The book “details how small towns should govern,” says French, who also has written a trio of textbooks on public policy and administration.
French served as manager of a small town in Southwest Virginia before going into academia. His deep knowledge of small town governance will be a huge help in the Stennis Institute’s work in a state where 54 percent of incorporated communities have 1,200 or fewer residents, Wiseman says.
So much of the current academic instruction in public policy and administration focuses on big city government “and not managing local governments like we have here in Mississippi,” he notes.
“This is an area he [French] has specialized in. He’s very well known around the Southeastern Conference of Public Administration,” an organization created to enhance the public service field in the Southeast.
While the bulk of its work involves helping Mississippi’s small municipalities, the Stennis Institute of Government & Community Development does assist mid and large municipalities. More attention is on the smaller communities, because “often smaller local governments do not have a place to turn to,” French says.
Around 90 percent of Mississippi’s local governments have “Code Charter” forms of government, according to French. “The boards make the decisions,” he says.
Bigger cities such as Jackson and Hattiesburg have strong mayor governments, while many municipalities along the Mississippi coast have manager forms of government.
“It goes back to traditions,” French says.
A typical task a local government may ask French and his staff to perform would be a pay classification plan. A town may think it is overpaying its workers but could find that in reality it is underpaying them, French says. “We can look at what employees in comparable cities are being paid.”
Examinations of municipal personnel policies are also part of the Stennis Institute’s work, French notes. “We develop manuals and things they can implement on their own.”
French has a 12-member staff, plus a pair of staffers who do community development planning. “They do a program called ‘First Impressions.’ They look at your community and try to give you a candid response on what they see and what you can do to make your community a little more marketable,” French says.
The Institute recently wrapped up its first “Mayor’s Forum” in which a half dozen mayors spent a week in Starkville receiving advice on issues and problems unique to their communities. “We chose six mayors to come and present problems in their communities to a board of experts,” French says.
They would be asked, ‘“Why are you doing it that way? Have you thought about doing it this way’.”
More forums are planned, according to French.
The Institute organized the forums with the help of the Mississippi Municipal League.
Shari Veazey, Municipal League executive director, said the forums are an example of the new directions French is setting for the Institute. French and his staff are “looking at new ways to serve the communities,” she says.
“They have been such a big help to our cities,” Veazey says of the Institute and the helping hand it has lent since its founding in the mid 1970s. “They participate heavily in our educational programs. They also provide a lot of on-going services for our members.”
Veazey says French is getting acquainted with municipal leaders around the state and “is committed to finding out through interviewing our members what programs they need or need more of.”
French set out for a career in public administration after earning an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Tennessee and master’s degrees in city management from East Tennessee State University and foundations and policies of higher education from the University of Virginia.
Entry into academia occurred “sort of by accident,” French recalls.
While working as a local government manager in Southwest Virginia, he accepted an invitation from East Tennessee State to teach a class on municipal risk management, he says. “I discovered I really enjoyed teaching. My wife encouraged me to go back and get a PhD.”
He took her advice. After completing his weekly commutes to Starkville and earning his doctorate in 2001, he went on to serve as a visiting lecturer at both Appalachian State University and the University of Tennessee. Then came a post as an assistant professor at the University of Memphis, followed by a career progression at Mississippi State from assistant professor to associate professor to full professor.
“It made a good fit with my background to come on over to Stennis,” he says.
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