Fresh faces: New leaders bring unique perspective to government

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

Alderman Dan Dillard is quick to raise his hand and say, “I’m new.”

The newly elected alderman sees his inexperience as a positive not a negative.

Dillard said his newness forces him to ask those obvious questions that experienced aldermen just assume they know the answer to.

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“The biggest impact that I can have is not to accept the status quo,” he said.

Dillard said he asked a lot of questions when it came to putting together the 2008-2009 fiscal year budget, and he found it helpful.

He’s not the only one who thought that either.

Twelve-year veteran Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said one of best things she’s seen done by a newly elected official was Dillard’s handling of the city budget.

“Dan Dillard’s handling of the financial information of the city, and the questioning he does, and the background work he has done has greatly influenced the board in a positive way,” Mathis said.

Dillard said his lack of knowledge of city government workings can be a detriment only sometimes.

“For the most part, it brings a fresh approach to problem solving,” he said.

The doors to city hall and the supervisors’ building swing quite a bit in Adams County.

New officials come into office nearly every four years, and the constant change presents its pros and cons.

But veterans to local politics will tell you the pros outweigh the cons.

Former Natchez Mayor Phillip West served as an Adams County supervisor for 17 years, and he said new politicians have a proclivity to think out of the box.

“They tend not only to want to learn, but they tend to want to bring different thoughts and ideas to the table,” West said. “In many cases it is actually refreshing.

“There are times when those of us who have been in positions for a long time, we become set in our ways and don’t really contemplate new ideas and new processes or changes that could be positive changes.”

And other new board members said it’s their perspective and energy that makes them a good new addition to local government.

Alderman Mark Fortenbery said he brings a new perspective to the board.

“I’ve brought some new life,” he said. “I didn’t know much about government, but I did bring energy.”

Supervisor Mike Lazarus has been on the county board for a year, and he said it’s his energy and perspective that’s of value.

“I’m over there just bouncing in my chair all the time ready to get something done,” Lazarus said.

All three new officials said one of the things they’re tackling in a new way is bringing city and county governments together.

Lazarus said he thinks perhaps in the past, the city and county have been territorial, but now is the time to get past that frame of mind.

Dillard said that’s where the new board members can help.

“I think that’s one of the advantages of the new members,” he said. “You’re going into it very open minded, and I think that’s a very refreshing approach.”

Lazarus said he’s got his foot in the door.

“I think I have the board convinced let’s work with the city more,” he said.

But being the new guy on the block sometimes brings along the realization that you can’t do what you thought you could.

Lazarus, Dillard and Fortenbery have all learned that government can be painfully slow.

“It moves a lot slower than I want it to,” Lazarus said. “I came in with hopes that I could get a lot of thing done a lot faster than I could.”

Fortenbery and Dillard said they have both found that even the seemingly easiest things to do are jammed up by procedure and process.

“Simple things take a long time,” Fortenbery said.

As public works chair, Fortenbery said getting a pothole patched is almost as lengthy as betting a bill passed.

Dillard leads the recreation department, and he’s run into weighty procedures.

He said he thought the upkeep of Duncan Park would be relatively simple.

But just getting trees trimmed leads to a lengthy process.

“It’s going through the process of government bureaucracy,” he said. “The department head goes to the supervisor, who goes to the foreman, who goes to the worker. It seems to be much more cumbersome than just going out there and doing it yourself.”

Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute for Government at Mississippi State University, said there is a bit of disillusionment when newly elected officials first come on board.

He said when locals run for office, a lot of times it’s because they feel they’re seeing the current board doing something wrong.

“It’s a lot easier to say you should have done this and that, and then you get in and you find out there are laws against things you’ve been saying they out to do,” Wiseman said.

He said those officials who campaign on wanting to do good in the city, instead of trumping someone who’s doing wrong, are the ones who will be the most successful.

The ones who try to change the world ultimately fail, he said.

“Very few people find it’s what they expected when they get in office,” he said.

While Fortenbery, Dillard and Lazarus said that’s been a hard pill to swallow, board veterans say that’s part of the learning curve.

Mathis and 12-year veteran Supervisor Darryl Grennell said there is a lot to learn when serving on a board for the first time.

And they said they spend a fair amount of time taking the new members under their wings.

“When you come into a board, everything does not start new with a new term,” Mathis said. “You are already locked into some ongoing projects.”

Grennell said he spends about 25 percent of his time making sure new board members under stand legal procedures.

“You’ve got to teach them the do’s and don’ts — things they can do legally and the things they can’t do that are illegal,” he said.

“I found that to be the case for many years since I’ve been on the board. You try to keep your board out of trouble.”

And while it takes some time to get their feet wet, Grennell said he’s seen new members come in with good ideas right off the bat.

When Lynwood Easteringly, a retired postmaster from Washington, first came on the board eight years ago, Grennell said he revamped the county’s postage system as a way to save the county money.

Mathis said when Alderman James “Ricky” Gray first came to the board, he came with such a fervor and thirst for knowledge that he jumped in to many seminars on municipal government.

“He is the most trained member of the board,” Mathis said.

And while Wiseman said it’s a good thing to keep the doors of government rotating to prevent stagnation, there is such thing as too much of a good thing.

“It usually helps to have one of two folks who continue on with the board that can be the institutional memory,” he said.

Conversely, a board full of veterans can be “the old stick in the mud,” he said.

“They can be an impediment in making positive changes,” Wiseman said.

“It’s not longevity, but longevity well used that makes a difference.”