With change coming, how much are we shaking things up?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 24, 2012

Photo illustration by Ben Hillyer

NATCHEZ — In a region where change comes slowly — mayors, sheriffs and aldermen can be elected for stretches of 20 years or more — July 1 represents a milestone for the Miss-Lou.

Two new mayors will take office. Concordia Parish will have a new sheriff for the first time in 22 years. Both public school systems will see new superintendents take office, one in a permanent capacity and one as an interim until July 12. A newcomer will replace a multi-term alderman in Natchez.

In addition, two local hospitals have recently hired new chief executive officers, and the Adams County Board of Supervisors seated three new members in January, all replacing multi-term members. A new police chief will soon take the helm in Natchez and Ferriday. Two Natchez private schools will start the year with new headmasters.

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But even with the changing of the guard, the Miss-Lou won’t actually see that much change, at least in faces. Both new mayors-elect, Butch Brown in Natchez and Gene Allen in Ferriday, have previously filled the office.

Concordia Parish Sheriff-elect Kenneth Hedrick is hardly new to the local law enforcement scene; he was chief of police in Ferriday from 1976 to 1981 and from 2008 to 2011. From 1981 to 2008 he was an agent for Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries.

Even the new Riverland Medical Center administrator, Donny Rentfro, isn’t new to the area; he is the former chief executive officer for Natchez Community Hospital. New supervisor David Carter was — and is — the county agent, and Angela Hutchins was the board’s inventory clerk before being elected.

Despite the familiarity some of the new members already had with the inter-workings of the county government, when they took office, all the supervisors decided to adopt a motto, “We are one.” At the time, it was meant not only to show that the board was united, but that they felt the entire community was one, the supervisors said.

And even with the changes taking place in July, Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said that message can still be the local zeitgeist.

“You certainly have the different philosophies we all have, but we will be able to work together,” Grennell said.

“I think we are all adults, and we will be able to communicate with each other and work together on projects to help the community as a whole. I am very receptive to working with anybody who is in city or county government.”

Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said that because so many of the people who are stepping into new roles have held local office before, the continued regionalism efforts shouldn’t see much — if any — of a disruption.

“I think that the set of new leadership you have got now has been involved with or exposed to the regionalism effort in one way shape or form, whether through the media or the efforts that have been done to educate (the community) on the benefits of some of our regional efforts,” Russ said.

“All of the elected officials are seasoned in those discussions already. Butch (Brown) has been involved across the state at the highest levels and seen regional efforts. (Alderwoman-elect Sarah Smith) was involved in the health care discussion of the regional effort, of course David (Carter), Calvin (Butler) and Angela (Hutchins) likewise have been in the public arena and around those discussions for that time period.”

Brown said he has been a longtime advocate for regionalism and teamwork from both sides of the river.

“I think more and more these days we see the synergy that the two communities bring together,” he said.

While there might not have been any official regionalism committees in existence the last time he was in office, Allen said he was always aware of the impact each municipality has on the others.

“What’s good for Ferriday is good for Vidalia and what’s good for Vidalia is good for Ferriday,” Allen said. “I think we can all benefit from this regionalism stewardship.

“We can get more done when we work together.”

Outgoing Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton said he does not believe the changes in governmental and community leadership will slow down regionalism.

“Regionalism will live on no matter who is the mayor of Natchez or Ferriday or wherever,” Middleton said. “We have established regionalism, and it will continue to move forward simply because of all the people that are involved.”

The area medical community has welcomed a couple of new hospital administrators in recent months as well.

Eric Robinson took over as chief executive officer of Natchez Community Hospital this month. Rentfro resigned from Community in March and is now hospital administrator at Riverland Medical Center in Ferriday.

Ward 3 Alderwoman-elect Smith, who also heads up the Miss-Lou Regional Health Care Committee, said both Robinson and Rentfro are committed to regionalism.

“Donny has been on board since the beginning, and Eric has been to a couple of our meetings and will continue that once we start meeting again, which will be soon,” Smith said. “Both CEOs want to be part of the ongoing efforts.”

Smith said the new faces of leadership in the Miss-Lou may provide new ideas for regionalism.

“It’s just an opportunity for new people to get together and have new ideas,” she said.

From his first day on the job, Rentfro has said he supports any and all Miss-Lou regionalism efforts.

“We need to work collectively and provide our community the best services possible,” Rentfro said. “I know all the incoming folks will continue on the path to better our community.”

Concordia Parish Economic Director Heather Malone said she believes the combined experience of those coming into the new positions is key for continuing regionalism efforts.

“Though they’re new in those particular positions, these people have been around our community long enough to know what direction we’re going in,” Malone said. “They won’t have to play catch-up, so they can move forward with some of the more important issues.

“Since there’s not a big learning curve, I think it’s a huge benefit for our area.”

Not wanting to discourage the idea of welcoming new faces to the Miss-Lou, Malone said the familiar faces coming into the positions will also bring fresh ideas.

“You hate to say that you don’t want to see new faces in these positions, because sometimes you need the experience of people not from around here, but I think in these situations it will help us move forward with the regionalism efforts we’ve been working to establish,” Malone said. “People as part of our nature don’t like change, but you have to take it and roll with it.”

Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce President Debbie Hudson said a strategic plan is the key to continuing with regionalism and getting all the different entities working together and on the same page.

“(With a strategic plan), you cut to the chase, you put every group at the table, and every group knows what everyone wants to do,” Hudson said. “And everyone does their part so we know where we’re going, and we can get there quicker, faster and better.”

And that means accepting change, even if change has a familiar face.