Candidates discuss political power

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 15, 2004

Political success means power. Successful politicians earn the power to make change, the power to do good and the power to make the lives of the voters better.

No politician can be wholly successful without power,

however, as the saying goes; absolute power, corrupts absolutely.

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In Selma there has been discussion about who should hold the power.

Should it be its chief executive, the mayor? Or should it be the body of nine people plucked from the city’s wards, the city council?

Somewhere in between complete power for those two entities, lies Selma’s current situation.

The mayor’s job is to run the day-to-day operations. The mayor provides the city council with ideas, suggestions and plans.

The City Council, on the other hand, approves the budget, holds the city’s purse strings and has appointment powers for the department heads managed by the mayor every day. The council also appoints assistant chiefs for the public safety departments, fire and police as well as the three shift commanders in the fire department.

The candidates in this month’s mayoral election want the powers that come with the office of Mayor of Selma. Some of them may want more while others feel the current system’s checks and balances are enough.

“The whole nature of our system is checks and balances,” State Representative and mayoral candidate Yusef Salaam said. “On the federal level we have executive-congressional, on the state level, governor and legislature and on the local level mayor and council. It’s not necessary for both bodies to agree on everything. If one gets out of balance the other body should check.”

Fellow candidate Gene Hisel says the current city council did not use their check powers enough.

“It is my contention that by virtue of 90 percent of the mayor’s recommendations being passed by the council that the council has supported the mayor,” Hisel said. “This is a

tremendously high approval rate for a mayor’s suggestions.

I feel the council has been pushed to the point that they are no longer going to follow the present leadership.

Many in the council feel that by following the mayor’s recommendations they have compromised themselves as well as their city.

Pacification should not replace common sense.”

Mayor James Perkins Jr., however, believes the checks and balances swing too heavily in the council’s favor.

“The argument that the city council needs to appoint all department heads to insure a balance of power is severely flawed,” Perkins said. “The city council controls all aspects of finance, property, and they make all law that city government operates under, when they decide who works at the department level where the money is actually spent, they actually control all aspects of government.”

Candidate Glenn King points out mayor once had appointment powers.

“As you recall back in 1999 the mayor had more power than he has now,” he said. “You had some various problems about it that were they fought to change it. My philosophy about that is I would make suggestions to the council and we should have the same open mind to work together. If it would work better, I would leave it like it is.

I would try to balance it out I would try to work with the council and do what’s best for the citizens and the city of Selma.”

Perkins however said he did try to work with the council, only to be rebuffed in his efforts.

“Selma is the only city our size and larger in the entire state where the mayor cannot decide who works for him,” Perkins said. “Initially in an attempt to avoid conflict, I tried making recommendations to the city council on appointments.

But, the city council rejected my recommendations on several appointments.”

Perkins listed the police chief, city finance director and general services director as three well-known examples of times the council did not accept his recommendations.

Some candidates said appointment powers wouldn’t be necessary to lead. That the mayor should be able to convince the council to see things like the mayor does.

Salaam said that a candidate blessed with political skills does not need to have the appointment powers to achieve goals.

“We’re not dealing with a dictatorship, we’re dealing with a democratic system of government,” Salaam said. “A chief executive must hone the skills to be able to relate to the council and be able to persuade them to adopt his approach, his policy.”

The mayor did, in the early 1990’s, have appointment powers of department heads. However Salaam, whose served his first term in the council that year, says those powers were short-lived.

Apparently the mayor had the powers for only eight months before public outcry helped the council to take them back.

“It’s a misunderstanding to think that the mayor of this city has ever had those powers for more than eight months,” Salaam said. “Those powers have never been vested in the mayor they’ve always been vested in the council.”

King says if elected, he wouldn’t fight to change the appointment powers.

“I wouldn’t go in there and say ‘I’m the mayor I want to have all the power, I’ll fight Tom, I’ll fight Jane, whenever I get ready I want a new chief,'” King said. “I’m not going to come in there with that type of (Attitude). Work together. United we will stand divided we will fall.”

Salaam says he will support legislation to give the appointment powers permanently to the council.

“If I’m elected mayor I’m going to ask for special legislation for the city of Selma to make it permanent that these powers will always be in the council,” Salaam said. “I’m going to ask our state delegation to pass a local law to permanently vest these powers in the council.”

Hisel adds that giving more powers to the mayor may limit the ability to do the myriad of tasks set before the office.

“If the mayor is given any more responsibilities when will he have time to accomplish his primary duty: insuring the basic needs of the people of Selma are being met?” Hisel asked. “The idea of who hires who and who supervises the who is blown out of proportion.

If competent people are assigned as department heads, the need for supervision should be minimal.”

For his part, Perkins wrote a January 2003 memo to the council explaining his position. On behalf of peace in government, he offered to remove himself from the process.

“First, the public wanted peace in city government.

Second, for the sake of industry recruiting, retention, and expansion, the public debates had to be toned down,” Perkins said. “I believe that I responded to the public’s outcry for peace as best I could under some very difficult conditions.”

Salaam said it should never have been an issue.

“If you cannot function as a mayor without appointment powers within the City of Selma, then you shouldn’t have to run,” Salaam said. “We shouldn’t have to change the form of government that’s been in place for over 100 years just to suit a particular personality.

I think that gives rise to unstable, banana republic-type government.

It’s against the spirit of the systematic government.”