BY BRIAN JONES
Lonely Night-Smith Only Candidate At Forum
COLUMBUS – It was a forum of one Tuesday night at Mississippi University for Women, as incumbent Robert Smith was the only mayoral candidate to show up.
The forum, held at MUW’s Parkinson Hall, was sponsored by the MUW College Democrats and the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. Smith and Democratic challenger Selvain McQueen were to face off in what was planned as a 90-minute debate. Although McQueen had previously said he would attend, he backed out because of a family member’s illness. That left Smith on the stage alone, where he fielded questions from student moderators and the audience for about 45 minutes.
About 100 people attended. [A previous version of this post said about 40 people attended, which was an error on my part. I counted around 100 citizens and students, as well as some city employees and officials; I do not usually include the officials in my head counts. Sorry for the confusion. – Ed.]
[I’m going to hit the more interesting questions rather than going through all of them. – Ed.]
Smith, who has been mayor for the past 10 years, began with some introductory remarks.
“My platform is simple,” he said. “Crime is our top priority here in the city. If I am re-elected I will work to provide resources needed by the Columbus Police Department and our drug task force. We hired a consultant to come in and analyze CPD to make it more efficient and effective and responsive. From an infrastructure standpoint we want to maintain and improve quality infrastructure, such as street paving, sidewalks, curbs and gutters and storm drains From an educational standpoint we want to continue to partner with the school board and provide the resources they need to make sure every student gets the best education possible. From a retail and economic development standpoint, we will work with the LINK to continue to work to attract high-tech, high-paying jobs and also develop retail. We will work with developers are far as redevelopment. We have gotten grants and renovated 17 homes, and we have the (Extreme Energy Makeover) program with TVA and the Columbus Light and Water Department. That is a grant that has allowed us to reconfigure about 117 homes to make them more energy efficient. On a park and recreation standpoint we want to develop a comprehensive plan that will include youth, adult, senior citizens and citizens with disabilities.”
Smith was asked if he had a plan to help develop future leaders.
“What the mayor’s office has done so far is to work with the Columbus Municipal School District and with the superintendent,” Smith said. “They have a program called Bridging the Gap, which is a mentoring program. Students that are interested in city and county government…the mayor and some volunteers and the board of supervisors have mentoring programs to encourage them to get involved in politics.”
Smith was asked how he would incorporate the faith-based community to improve the city.
“From a safety standpoint, crime is a community issue,” Smith said. “It takes the community working together as a whole to reduce crime. That includes not only the politicians and the citizens, but also the churches and other organizations.”
Smith was asked about the importance of trust between the community and city leaders.
“If you don’t have any trust between the community and the city leaders or the community and the police department, you will not have any improvement,” Smith said. “It’s very important to develop trust, because as a politician you need to trust the citizens, and at the same time the citizens need to trust the politicians. In other words, don’t promise anything that you can’t deliver.
“If you’re referring to me personally from a trust standpoint, when people come to me with a complaint I tell them that I will take it under consideration,” Smith said. “When I’m out politicking some people will say if I want them to vote for me I’m going to have to do this or do that, and I don’t make promises of that magnitude. I’ll take your concerns or issues under consideration and as long as it’s legal I’ll see what I can do.
“What you’ve got to remember is that in order to get anything done you’ve got to have four votes,” Smith said. “From the charter that the city is under is that you have a weak mayor and a strong council. (The mayor) can make whatever recommendation he wants, but if he doesn’t get four votes or cast the vote to break a tie there’s nothing he can do.”
Smith was asked about staffing at the police department, and whether CPD will be fully staffed.
“We budgeted for 67 officers during our budget process,” Smith said. “Right now we are at about 55. We had eight sworn in at our last council meeting, and they will be going to the academy in May. I hope we get to 67 before the year is over with. We had two career days in March and we ended up with about 35 applicants. I’m hoping we get to the 67, but if we get to 65 that would be great. Also the council decided last year that once we get to 67 money was added to take it up to 77. The police department has four shifts, and on each shift we hope to have at least 10 officers. Right now we are working with seven or eight per shift.”
Smith was asked what the future was for nightclubs and bars within the city. [The question drew some laughter, including from Mr. Smith. – Ed.]
“For example, we had an issue with the Princess Theater and we changed the (closing) time from 1:30 a.m. until 10 p.m.,” he said. “After several meetings with the neighbors, the owners, attorneys and city officials, we came to a compromise. We wanted to do what was in the best interest of the clubs but also in the best interests of the citizens also. The compromise was that we changed the time from 10 until midnight for eight weeks. Thereafter if things work out then the owner will come back and ask to go back to the regular time. The back section of the Princess was closed down.
“What the city did also was increase the lighting in the central business district,” he said. “The CBD is from where the light and water department is on Fifth Street up to Franklin Academy school, and from where City Hall is at Sixth Street and Main to the Welcome Center. We are increasing the wattage there to there is 1,800 watts on each pole. The city is also in the process of installing surveillance cameras from the light and water department to Fifth and Main.”
Smith was asked if there were any plans for a homeless shelter in the city.
“That has been discussed,” Smith said. “We have a committee between the mayor and council and the board of supervisors, but it’s the price and the liability. It’s still in the discussion stages because it’s very expensive.”
Smith was asked how costs of running the amphitheater would be handled.
“Once it’s completed we have two venue consultants that have applied,” Smith said. “Once it’s completed we’ll take proposals The first phase should be complete in June. That’s a $3.35 million project. That’s money from the state of Mississippi, with no cost to the taxpayers of Columbus. We went back this year and asked for another $2 million. It was in the bond bill, and the bond bill was killed. They are going to have a special session and hopefully the money will be added back in there sometime before the summer is over.”
Smith was asked why he chose to run again after 10 years of service.
“Unless you sit in that chair you have no earthly idea what you have to do deal with,” Smith said. “I tell people I must be crazy. But I like working with people, and I guess that came about from my time in the school system. I just love dealing with people. But I must be crazy, because people call you about dogs barking and how I need to stop his neighbor’s dog from barking. My question is how can I stop a dog from barking? I have a snake in my carport, will you come and get it out. I said I am just as afraid of that snake as you are. Somebody told me that my predecessor, Mr. Rupp, would come and pick them up, and I told him they needed to call him over at Mississippi State.”
Smith was asked what distinguished him from the other candidates.
“You’re here,” called out someone in the audience, drawing applause.
“I consider myself a leader and I have tried to make Columbus a great place to be,” Smith said. “I have leadership skills, I have organizational skills, I have leadership skills. That’s what you need to be an effective leader of the City of Columbus.”
Smith was asked about plans for public transportation in the city.
“We need public transportation,” he said. “We got hoodwinked when we were dealing with a company out of Indiana. As we speak we are in the process of working with a company to provide public transportation. It is in the works.”