TUPELO • Markel Whittington spent several years traveling all over Mississippi as a young associate for the McRae’s department store after graduating college, but in 1979 he finally decided it was time to go out on his own and start a business.
A native of Braxton, Mississippi, the 29-year-old retailer at the time settled in Tupelo and bought an office supply store on Industrial Road. Shortly after sealing the deal, he went to see George McLean, the legendary newspaper publisher and civic leader known as one of Tupelo’s largest ambassadors.
“I told Mr. McLean, ‘Tupelo is the only place that I would want to move to, go into business and have children here,’’' Whittington said. The publisher then stood up and congratulated the new business owner for investing in Tupelo.
Decades later, the now-71-year-old business owner wants to help write the next chapter of the All-America City he chose to call home.
If elected, Whittington said he'll be guided by the priorities that first brought him to the city. He wants to make Tupelo business friendly and help grow the city responsibly over the next four years so that more young professionals can have the same experience that he did 40 years ago.
Whittington has largely avoided criticizing his political opponents through his campaign and has strayed away from publicly critiquing the outgoing mayoral administration – partly because he’s worked closely with the mayor that he’s looking to succeed.
Whittington’s main strategy since he qualified in January has been to convince Tupelo voters that after 12 years of serving on the city council, he’s the right person to inherit the city’s top political office.
“Tupelo is poised for growth. With that growth comes challenges, and challenges we’ve handled pretty well in the past 12 years,” Whittington told the Daily Journal. “Tupelo is financially strong. We’re able to do things other cities just dream about doing.”
Choosing city department heads
If Whittington wishes to implement any major policies to grow the city, he’ll have to decide who he wants leading the taxpayer-funded city departments that provide critical services to citizens.
A new mayor will likely have several key vacancies, including police chief, while coordinating operations with the newly hired director of the BancorpSouth Arena and the newly hired director of the city’s regional airport.
Whittington said that for any critical vacancies that arise, he would try to look both internally and externally for candidates.
“These can’t be filled with friends and good ole boys,” Whittington said of vacancies. “They have to be filled with professionals.”
One of the few critiques that Whittington has levied against the current mayoral administration while is that the city is spending too much in employee costs. If Whittington is elected mayor, he could have a direct role in decreasing those costs.
“We need to make sure that the city is managed appropriately because when your personnel costs are too high, it means you have less money to fix potholes and drainage and do all the other amenities that taxpayers want and deserve,” Whittington said.
The mayoral candidate said that would not like to see personnel costs rise to over 60% of the city’s operating budget. It's currently a little higher than that.
However, the mayor candidate said that this does not mean he would enact major layoffs in city government or cut benefits for city employees.
“I think the department heads have to rightsize their departments,” he said.
Leadership changes at Tupelo Police Department
One of the most important departments in municipal government is the police department, which is also an organization that has continued to generate controversy throughout multiple mayoral administrations.
Whittington noted Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre's impending retirement and said he believes some change could be enacted with the installation of a new police chief.
“That police chief has to assess the situation and has to assess the purpose and the mission of the police advisory board,” Whittington said. “I support the police department 110%. They need to be paid more.”
Whittington did not say what type of reforms he hopes a new chief will implement, but did say that he would work with him or her to help re-evaluate the goals of the department.
When asked if he thought the advisory board should be strengthened to have some type of investigative or subpoena power over the police department, Whittington pushed back and said he doesn’t think the board was ever designed as an oversight board, but he did commit to reviewing its purpose.
County jail remains source of local contention
A new mayor may also have a role to play amid unresolved questions over the Lee County Adult Jail, which has faced overcrowding problems and claims of disrepair.
The Lee County Board of Supervisors recently attempted to obtain legislative authorization to hold a referendum in 2023 on a proposed sales tax increase. Lawmakers did not ultimately give supervisors this power.
“Any tax increase whether it's an ad valorem tax or sales tax should be a last resort. I think communications with the City Council and all the municipalities and the county needs to improve drastically,” Whittington said.
Whittington said he does not know whether a sales tax increase is the best option because he has not been included in the latest discussions with the county about how a potential new jail should be paid for. However, he did pledge to work with county officials to try and come up with a solution for the jail.
‘“I would think we could bond it, in my opinion,” he said. “You could take all the stakeholders, all the municipalities in Lee County, the county itself, along with the city of Tupelo and I think the bonding capacity would be there to bond it to pay for it over a 20-year period without raising sales taxes.”
Affordable housing remains a need
If Whittington wants to continue growing the city's population, he will have to explore ways to house the new people moving to Tupelo.
Affordable housing is one of the top issues voters have indicated they care about this election cycle.
City leaders last month hosted a ribbon cutting event for subsidized housing units in an area on Ida B. Wells Street. Those houses are the first a proposed plan involving three phases. Whittington - who has been involved in talks about this plan as a councilman - said he wants to stay the course with the city's current planning on subsidized housing with the endgame of establishing homeownership among the tenants.
“There’s a shortage of affordable housing, but I don’t know if you build $300,000 housing if that really solves the issue,” Whittington said. “I think that’s something that the new mayor in collaboration with the builders and the contractors and the realtors can sit down and say you know what is the best option for Tupelo.”
Whittington also believes could sell city-owned property to developers in a bid to bring more affordable housing available without direct public subsidy to the owner or tenant.
The mayoral hopeful also said he wants to train city employees to have better customer service skills and pledged to bring more diverse viewpoints into the mayor’s office before major decisions are made.
Whittington has received $42,500 in campaign donations since the year began, and has spent nearly $40,000 on his campaign, according to campaign finance reports. He still has around $14,000 in cash to spend,
Whittington faces Lee County Supervisor Todd Jordan in the GOP primary, who is running as an outsider to municipal government who will bring a fresh face and a new approach to City Hall.
The winner of the Republican primary will face Tupelo attorney Victor Fleitas — the only Democratic candidate to qualify for mayor — in the general election on June 8.