City needs a new rudder

Published 5:00 am Sunday, April 29, 2012

In two days the first round of the Natchez mayor’s office fight should be over.

Conventional wisdom is that with three relatively well-known candidates in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, a runoff is likely.

If that happens, round No. 1.5 will occur before round No. 2 in June, when the Republican and independent candidates join in.

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But first, Natchez residents will have to choose between two former mayors — Larry L. “Butch” Brown and Phillip “Bucket” West — and the incumbent, Jake Middleton.

When you cut through the campaign promises and mud-slinging and get down to the nitty gritty of what citizens really need a mayor to do, things begin to clear up a bit.

Natchez needs a mayor who loves it enough to make tough decisions and get the city back on the right track, a mayor who is coach, CEO, drill sergeant and dad all at once.

That’s a rare combination.

The secret is to know which role to fill at any given time and realize that a team cannot win solely because of a good coach. The team needs talented players and good game plan to execute.

Middleton has been criticized for simply being too nice, too worried about offending anyone. That’s what apparently fuels his tolerance for letting the aldermen run city meetings. It’s been clear that since that void of leadership has appeared, aldermen have taken advantage of the mayor’s “niceness” and walked all over him. He’s vowed to stop that if he’s elected to another four years, but his promise is too little, too late.

Middleton is a nice guy, but he’s in the wrong seat. His nature is to not want to offend anyone and thus progress moves extremely slowly, if at all.

Phillip West is just the opposite.

He doesn’t care who he offends. He simply reacts and makes things happen on his own agenda and will spin anything into a public battle if he feels doing so will help his cause.

He’s shoots first and asks questions later. That’s a dangerous thing to have in a leadership role. If department heads in the city are somewhat demotivated in the current administration, it seems they were scared to death under West. The revolving door at the city planner’s office was a good example of this.

Butch Brown is either the prodigal son or the devil himself, depending on who you ask. For many his name hearkens back to a time when the city was, indeed, great. His administration was, perhaps, the last time the city felt a true sense of pride and accomplishment.

Brown is criticized for tons of projects that costs lots of money — most of which he’d argue came from state and federal sources. But at the same time the criticism is lobbed, even political foes say, “I don’t know where we’d be if we didn’t have that convention center.”

Natchez is different than it was when Brown last sat in the head chair at City Hall. Many people suggest Brown’s reputation at the state level is tarnished by his antics when he was head of the state’s transportation department.

But none of that matters if he simply does the job of running the city and doesn’t meddle in economic development matters or issues outside the basics of being mayor.

Clearly, two things have changed for the better since Brown left City Hall in 2000. Our community has finally got its act together on economic development matters, and we’re starting to think and work regionally.

If he’s elected — and it’s certainly not a shoo-in — the community’s biggest challenge may be in keeping Brown from disrupting Natchez Inc. or offending our regional neighbors.

I pray enough private businesses are involved in both efforts so that neither group will stand for it and will hold him in check.

Clearly, however, his leadership skills are badly needed in a city that feels rudderless at the moment.


Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or