GCN Special Report
By Keith Burton - GulfCoastNews.com
Filed 5/15/06 Updated Additions 5/18/06
Like Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Hurricane Katrina left Pass Christian desolate, but perhaps more so than anywhere else. The Pass lost 100 percent of its public buildings, including City Hall, the police station and library. It also lost 100 percent of its businesses and nearly 80 percent of all the homes in the city. All of this a devastating blow to the city's tax base and income.
Pass Christian’s Mayor Billy McDonald said that out of a population just over 7,000 people, the city now has only 2,500 people and the numbers are not growing.
McDonald has been sharply criticized for being absent a short while after the hurricane, and since then, not attending some city council and public meetings. Just this past Sunday, the Sun Herald newspaper’s editors penned a sharply critical editorial calling for the 70-year old McDonald to resign, accusing him of “incompetence.” This editorial misses what is truly the issue.
Pass Christian is a city that may not survive; its damages are too severe. McDonald, who has more than 30 years of experience in local government, including being a longtime Harrison County supervisor, knows government, and is certainly not incompetent. But he also sees his city as it is now, and realizes the reality of its future. The problem is that he is ill, and suffers from high blood pressure, which threatens his health.
Residents of the historic community of Pass Christian are in turmoil too. They lost their homes, they livelihoods and perhaps their future. They are distraught and want answers. But those answers are grim. Real leadership is called for in such times, but name calling and finger pointing will do nothing for the city, and the Sun Herald’s editors should know that.
If the city is to survive, it needs to use the most of its leadership and talent. There is a role then for the mayor, despite his illness, and a role for others willing to take up the challenge, but to criticize and point fingers is not leadership, or a solution for what faces the city.
GCN spoke with Mayor Billy McDonald this past
Saturday by telephone. The mayor was articulate, deeply hurt from some of
the comments being made about him, and very much concerned about the
future of Pass Christian. He was certainly not a man consumed about
himself, but very realistic about what he can do and not do.
Everyone has commented on how much better Mississippi has handled the post-Katrina crisis than Louisiana. The most salient point is that it is Mississippi’s tremendously experienced political leadership that has been the reason behind that success, if even that word is suitable for the crisis.
What most people that do not follow government closely often fail to understand, and this apparently is true of the Sun Herald, is that the most critical decisions are made behind the scenes, in one-on-one meetings and the telephone. Only the most experienced political leaders have the type of networking experience that can get what needs to be done in government accomplished. Novice political watchers and newly elected public officials do not have the skills to handle even routine governmental issues, and in a crisis situation, even less so. They don’t have a Rolodex with the extensive contacts as would a seasoned politician.
Mayor McDonald has that experience and it has worked well for Pass Christian since he has been in office. Before he took office, Pass Christian was nearly in bankruptcy. Under his administration, the city grew and paid down its debts and was in sound financial shape just prior to Katrina.
But Katrina’s fury didn’t spare the city. Pass Christian was as much part of “Ground Zero” as Bay St. Louis and Waveland.
McDonald has spent his career in public service and loves his city. But he also loves his wife and family and he knows his health is at risk. And it is a wise man, not an incompetent one, that knows how to serve when faced with the crisis the city is now in.
Since the storm, the city’s Board of Aldermen meetings have often been contentious as residents, upset with what has happened, are worried about what their governing leaders will do. It is not just the mayor that has missed meetings, there have also been meetings where some of the aldermen were absent and a quorum could not be held. Regardless, the meetings would spike the blood pressure of a perfectly healthy man.
For the most part in government, public meetings are more theater than where real decisions are made. The meetings are important, but in the end, a Board of Aldermen’s meeting is just that, a meeting for the Board of Aldermen. Neither state law, nor practicality, requires the mayor to be present at every meeting.
One alderman had to resign since the pressures of his job and family were too great for him to serve. These are the conditions that challenge any small town government. The Sun Herald’s editors cited the resignation of the alderman as if his resignation was due to McDonald, a terrible example of journalism for the lie that it implied.
“I think a lot of the criticism against me is political,” McDonald said. “When my blood pressure spikes, I don’t go the meetings or go into my office. But when I am not in, I call my office often up to eight to ten times a day.”
McDonald understands that people are upset since the hurricane. “People are uptight, but I didn’t cause the storm. There is only so much I can do legally.”
McDonald says he is working has hard as possible, and so are the city’s employees. He said that help is limited from Harrison County, which typically provides assistance to the county’s small cities.
“They are in financial trouble too since the hurricane,” McDonald said. But they are helping where they can.
The state has also not been as helpful as citizens might think. “We have received very little help from the state, McDonald said.
What many people don’t understand is that small towns operate with very little excess cash. Their budgets are set with virtually no additional funds except to pay salaries for city workers, the utility bills and for limited public services and city debt. After a major disaster, while some immediate financial help comes in, the cities do not have the funds to pay for emergency conditions. The federal help requires local communities to pay up to 10 percent local match to draw down emergency money. This ten percent is not included in the federal emergency money.
McDonald said the city has enough money to operate this fiscal year, but not next year, which begins in October. “We lost almost all of our businesses and homes and next year, unless something happens, we will not be able to pay salaries or our bills,” McDonald told GCN.
McDonald said that the city can borrow up to $10 million from the Mississippi Development Bank, but he said, “We have no way to pay it back.”
Said McDonald, “It is going to take years for Pass Christian to recover.”
Part of the debate regarding McDonald has
been his compensation. Some Pass Christian aldermen have sought to cut
the mayor's current pay as a way to penalize McDonald for his actions
even though the mayor has not committed any crime against the city or
his office. State law does not support cutting his current pay and
attempting to do so against the mayor in his current term of office is
contrary to state law. Pay changes can only apply to subsequent terms of
office. The omission of this easily-researched law is hard to explain
from McDonald's opponents and the Sun Herald's stories and editorials.
They should know better.
§ 21-8-21. Mayor and councilmen to be qualified electors of city; compensation; overtime to members of police and fire departments.
(1) The mayor and the members of the council shall be qualified electors of the municipality. The compensation for the mayor and the members of the council shall be set by the council. After the salaries of the first mayor and first council have been determined by the council of any municipality electing to come under the provision of this chapter, such salaries shall be effective immediately. Thereafter, any increases or decreases in the salary for the mayor or councilmen may be authorized by the council at any time prior to ninety (90) days before the next general election for the selection of municipal officers. Such increases or decreases shall not become effective until the next elected mayor and council takes office.
An Archive of past Board of Alderman meetings can be seen at a website operated by Dan Ellis in Pass Christian. Click Here for the meeting's archive The archive report is compiled by Alderman Chipper McDermott and is not a GCN report, but is provided for your information.
Received on the GCN Political Message Board
Posted by: Jeff Emerson (email@example.com)
Update 5/25/06 - Mayor Billy McDonald has chosen to take a 2-week leave of absence without pay for health reasons. McDonald told GCN that he doesn't plan to resign, however, pressure to do so remains. McDonald's critics remain adamant that McDonald resign his position. If he did so, it would set up a situation where a temporary mayor could be named, however, state law would require a special election to select a new mayor, this in a city where most of its population remains outside of town and regular polling locations would have to be re-established and approved by the Justice Department.