TUPELO • Mississippi’s state parks are neither managed nor advertised effectively, according to a legislative oversight committee.
Haphazard maintenance, declining visitation, and not enough money are among the failings identified by a report released this week from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Review.
These findings follow a 2020 legislative session in which state leaders largely agreed that improvements are needed to the Magnolia State’s network of 25 state parks, which are managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
Lawmakers floated multiple and competing proposals to bolster the state’s park systems. No plan, however, could garner favor with both chambers. The Senate initially backed a plan to privatize the management of some parks while forcing local governments to take over other parks. The House brought up various plans to divert additional funding for parks.
The PEER findings underscore the need for some kind of action to address a park system that has seen a steady decline in visitors, dropping from 4 million in 2001 to just over 1 million in 2019.
“Internal challenges facing the state park system include a lack of prioritization in maintenance planning, a lack of strategic marketing, and a lack of accountability for cash payments made at park entrances,” the PEER committee found.
Maintenance needs loomed large during legislative discussion this year on parks.
MDWFP claims it has a $147 million maintenance backlog. When the Daily Journal asked for more information about this figure, the agency could never account for where that estimate came from.
Some lawmakers also told the Daily Journal they have been unable to obtain a full accounting of how that number was derived.
The PEER committee ultimately suggested that the state parks system should use data related to how frequently parks are used in order to prioritize maintenance projects.
Right now, MDWFP “lacks a strategy to prioritize and accomplish the projects, despite readily available data on state park occupancy and rental rates.”
Similarly, PEER found that there is no strategic marketing plan that guides efforts to attract new visitors.
Financially, the state parks system does not generate enough revenue to sustain its operations. A few parks generate enough revenue to cover their expenses, but the system as a whole is reliant on an annual appropriation by the Legislature from the general fund.
Mississippi fares particularly poorly when compared to neighboring states, some of which have dedicated revenue streams for parks.
“Neighboring state park systems employ more staff, operate more parks and have more expenditures and self-generated revenues than Mississippi’s state park system," according to the PEER findings.
PEER suggested that the Legislature consider changing the governance of the park system. Options include the following: moving parks to a new state agency that would include tourism; moving parks to the tourism division of the Mississippi Development Authority; or creating a standalone agency to manage parks.
TUPELO • After 35 years, the Committee for King (CFK) found an additional way to carry on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy beyond his birthday weekend.
Since January, the organization has been hosting monthly discussions, posted online, covering systemic racism in education, health/wellness, banking/finance, and criminal justice. The series was made possible through a partnership with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
The series concluded May 16 with a panel discussion about systemic racism’s impact on the criminal justice system. It featured FWD.us Mississippi Director Alesha Judkins, Southern Poverty Law Center Staff Attorney Leslie Faith Jones and MacArthur Justice Center Director Cliff Johnson. Over the course of about 90 minutes, panelists discussed their personal journeys with criminal justice work, how history continues influencing the penal system in the South, and what Mississippi and local communities can do to address issues within the justice system, such as Mississippi having one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, with a disproportionate amount of those locked up being Black people.
"To the extent that we think about our next steps, what do we invest in?" Jones said during the panel. "If we're investing in root causes to try to minimize and mitigate for better outcomes, then it's no different than thinking about your health care system, it's no different than thinking about your educational system, it's no different than thinking about your banking system. All of it makes you a stronger community, so it's worth it."
The panel was indicative of the kinds of conversations CFK sought to facilitate when they first launched the series in January, said CFK chairperson Shawn Brevard. Since 1986, Tupelo has celebrated the late U.S. Civil Rights leader with a birthday weekend celebration each January.
As it did for most events, COVID-19 changed those plans. The pandemic forced CFK to revamp their keystone weekend celebration for 2021 and also provided an opportunity to do things differently, Brevard said.
Ever since the 2020 protests against police brutality and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death last May, communities across North Mississippi like Tupelo have hosted community forums and panels addressing systemic racism within their own communities. The CFK series started with a panel in January introducing future topics. Every third Sunday, from February to May, CFK covered one of the four topic areas in more detail. The purpose was to provide an opportunity to understand how each topic relates to the community and consider ways to be better community members with each other.
“Our purpose was not to hit anyone over the head with a definitive answer on things. This was to have an open panel discussion with individuals, both local and regional, who have expertise and experience in these specific topic areas,” Brevard said. “It’s important to have dialogue and consider how different people’s lived experiences affect their quality of life.”
Each panel was recorded and made available live via Zoom and CFK’s Facebook page, or posted shortly after on the CFK website, in order to make the content widely available while allowing people to participate in the topics on their own time.
William Winter Institute Youth Engagement Manager Von Gordon served as moderator for all five panels. One of his priorities was to create a space where people could be honest without fear of castigation. Gordon's goal was to foster constructive conversations that recognized how racism can operate without people’s full knowledge.
“Racism is a very corrosive form of oppression. It will not just go away," Gordon said. "Individuals must transform how they understand humanity and institutions must root it out of policy and practice. Only then will there be systemic progress. But none of that happens without dialogue, especially among neighbors."
Cathy Grace, co-director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at the University of Mississippi, was invited to participate in the education forum to discuss how early childhood is a key time in the development of children's beliefs around difference and acceptance.
During the panel, Grace sought illuminate how prejudice and expectations plays out in preschool expulsion rates, with the U.S. Department of Education federal data showing that Black children are expelled at higher rates than their white peers. She also emphasized the importance of early childhood education, and how she encourages other educators to reflect.
“In my role as a teacher educator, I try to put forth some questions that would result in there being self reflection in terms of where we all stand in our own personal biases and how we acknowledge those internally so that when we are teaching or engaged with other people that we are mindful of the fact that we need to be open and really listen to what folks are saying,” Grace said. “This way we can start the communication that leads to acceptance that leads to true understanding and friendships and relationships.”
The panel helped bring out issues for consideration and discussion while revealing current issues around ensuring an equity of services and treatments for kids based on their needs. She hopes by having these kinds of conversations with a larger audience can lead to changes in public schools and the community in general.
“If you want a strong community, you’ve got to invest in your people,” Grace said. “The community would invest in whatever it takes so that all the children in the community have access to a program that prepares them for school so that they are successful when they start school.”
During the education panel, Gordon said he appreciated hearing from Tupelo Public School District leaders such as superintendent Dr. Rob Picou and TPSD Board of Trustees member Kenneth Wheeler on how racism affected education in the area and how decisions by local leaders can either change or perpetuate that cycle. A key takeaway from the panels was how leadership would be important in ensuring the gains of the last 50 years are not taken for granted, Gordon said. Gordon hopes forums such as CFK’s can open doors to be honest, truthful, and learn in communities like Lee County.
“Racism has destroyed a great deal of human potential and possibility globally," he said. "Imagine Lee County as a boat. If racism keeps poking holes in the boat, your side might not sink first but it won't be long. Tupelo is a relatively small boat. Take on racism or take on water."
When it came to discussing systemic racism in Tupelo, Brevard was inspired by William Winter Institute public policy coordinator and Rethink Mississippi editor Jake McGraw to question the idea of Tupelo being regarded as a harmonious community, but not always a just one.
“The push was, are we settling for harmony over justice? That’s sort of the concept, is it surface or is it below the surface? Are we really being fair, being equitable, or are we just trying to be satisfied with not fighting with each other and being harmonious but being separate but unequal,” Brevard said.
When organizing the discussion, CFK wanted to acknowledge each topic was deep, layered, interconnected topics, and that “ there is no single one solution,” Brevard said.
“The hope would be that individuals and organizations can think about the systems that have been in place over long periods of time that have been damaging to people of color,” she said. “Quite honestly, if they damage our neighbors, they damage us. Whether we recognize it or not, we’re all connected. So how do we help each other? I think we have to take some responsibility for our fellow man, woman.”
Brevard hopes the community valued the experience and will continue to value it.
“We hope to share with our community more ways that we can work on these topics,” Brevard said. “This is an ongoing community dialogue that has begun.”
TUPELO • A man detained following a Tuesday evening shooting in central Tupelo has now been charged with murder.
Kortoris Burks, 43, of Tupelo, was formally charged with first degree murder Thursday. During his arraignment, Tupelo Municipal Court Judge Willie Allen ordered him held without bond.
Police responded to a shots fired call in the 300 block of King Street around 6 p.m. May 18. Officers responding to the short street off Jefferson Street near Crosstown found an adult male dead at the scene.
Lee County Coroner Carolyn Green identified the victim as Lorenzin Brown, 24, of Hibner Street, Tupelo. His body has been sent to the state crime lab in Pearl for an autopsy.
Tupelo police spokesman Capt. Chuck McDougald said the investigation is still ongoing and more details will be released when appropriate.
TUPELO • Todd Jordan and Victor Fleitas, Tupelo’s two mayoral candidates, painted different pictures of how they would respond to any future potential pandemic and how they would pick the city’s new police chief, during a Thursday night forum at the Link Centre in Tupelo.
Jordan, the Republican candidate, and Fleitas, the Democratic candidate, answered questions related to health care, economic development and education.
When asked if he would be willing to enact any local health protocols to prevent the spread of a deadly pandemic, Jordan stopped short of fully committing to the proposal. Instead, he said said he would study where the severity of a threat was concentrated.
“Is it localized in south Mississippi? Is it north Mississippi? I believe we can prepare,” Jordan said. “But we have to wait and see where the virus is coming from, or a disease is coming from, before we make that decision.”
Fleitas, an attorney, said that he would continue to rely on recommendations from federal and state health officials and would be open to the idea of implementing safety restrictions to limit the spread of a disease.
"I believe that the actions taken by this administration and this city were absolutely the proper actions to take,” Fleitas said. “I wish that there had been more buy-in by other governmental bodies in this state.”
The two mayoral candidates also disagreed about how to choose the city’s next police chief. The city’s current police chief, Bart Aguirre, announced last month he will retire at the end of June. The next mayor will be responsible for appointing a new permanent police chief.
While both candidates said the next police chief should be someone who is qualified and experienced, the two candidates differ on how they would go about picking someone to fill the role.
Jordan said that he wanted someone with a fresh perspective and who hasn’t spent “a lot of time behind a desk.”
“I don’t want to get into the old status quo of hiring somebody just because you know them or they’re a friend of yours or their dad is a friend of yours,” Jordan said.
Jordan said he would want to establish an independent task force to help choose the next chief. Jordan did not state what the makeup of the committee would look like.
Fleitas, however, said that he doesn’t “need an independent board” to help him choose the next police chief. Instead, he would seek a candidate who has higher education and has training in crisis intervention and de-escalation tactics.
Thursday night's debate was moderated by Rob Picou, superintendent of the Tupelo Public School District; Dr. Vernon Rayford, an internal medicine and pediatrics physician with North Mississippi Health Services; and Ashely Armstrong, a provider engagement manager for eviCore Healthcare.
The event was sponsored by the Lee County Get out the Vote coalition, Indivisible Northeast Mississippi and the Divine 9 Sororities and Fraternities.
The Daily Journal will host its own mayoral debate on Tuesday, May 25, at 6 p.m. at the Link Centre concert hall. It is scheduled to last approximately one hour.
Tupelo voters will elect the city’s next mayor and members of the Tupelo City Council in the general election on June 8.