Tempers flared on the McComb city board when it received a petition Tuesday to change the city’s form of government from a special charter city to a mayor-council structure, with tensions between selectmen and the mayor simmering throughout a contentious meeting.

Mayor Quordiniah Lockley prefers the mayor-council form of government to the current weak-mayor, strong board system in place now.

Lockley asked the selectmen to sign a petition to make the change, noting it meets the criteria laid out by the city charter, and a referendum would need to be held to either abandon the charter or keep it.

The change would eliminate the selectman-at-large position and give the mayor more powers, including veto power.

This was the crux of the selectmen’s dissent.

They asked the mayor who was behind the position, and Selectman Donovan Hill suggested Lockley’s involvement in the issue ran deeper than just presenting the petition to the board. Lockley refused to say who drafted the petition.

“They will come out at the appropriate time,” he said.

Selectman Devante Johnson asked Lockley if the petition was in response to the board’s move to reject the mayor’s request to re-advertise the city administrator position, and the mayor repeatedly said it was not.

Lockley, who has been in and out of McComb government since the 1980s, said he always felt the structure of city government needed to be changed.

Previous mayors, including Tom Walman, have also advocated for more mayoral power, including veto power, and previous boards have fought against it.

When asked what the group’s motive was, Lockley said they told him they believed the board was ineffective and that there needed to be “clearly drawn” lines between the executive and legislative branches, noting that the board operates in both.

“Being a historian of government, you have to have a clear separation of the executive and legislative branches of governments, and here, in McComb, there is not,” Lockley said Wednesday. “The executive branch needs to be the executive branch, and the legislative branch needs to be the legislative branch.”

Selectman Ronnie Brock said the city charter has been around since the city’s conception and the last thing the city needs is a strong mayor, weak board form of government.

“As a representative of my ward, if you see this petition, ball it up and throw it away,” he said.

Brock also noted that the petition was incorrectly formatted, so even if it were to meet the requirements, it would have to be rejected. Board attorney Angela Cockerham read the criteria and confirmed Brock’s statement.  

The issue then devolved into an argument over the mayor’s performance,with Johnson saying Lockley has the “perfect situation” with the current board.

“For the past two years, we have set back and said nothing. ... This is not a one-man show,” Johnson said, noting he would always be on the mayor’s side when it was the right action for the city.

The two continued to speak over each other and Johnson said, “I’ve always respected you. Will you please respect me?”

Selectman Shawn Williams said the change was about power, not the city.

“No disrespect to you, but I feel you try to play the victim,” he told Lockley. “It is going to take a good leader to make this work. ... It seems to me that this is about power.”

Selectman Donovan Hill agreed with Johnson that the board is in the position to help the city. Then he returned to criticism of the mayor.

“This board is being slandered,” Hill said. “This is not a dictatorship.”

Selectman Michael Cameron said he would be open to abandoning the special charter, but he wanted to know all options available before settling on another form such as mayor-council. He asked if Cockerham would make a presentation at the next meeting.

Cockerham said the board needed to get back on task, ending the dispute until later in the meeting when the board was set to vote on budget amendments.

Lockley said he recommended that the budget amendments be tabled, noting they contained errors.

“There are several mistakes in the end-of-the-year budget amendments, and I cannot and will not be able to support it with those mistakes,” he said.

Johnson asked the city’s comptroller, Zachery Fortenberry, to come into the boardroom, and Johnson read an email from Fortenberry about the amendments. The message expressed worry that the mistakes would be used against him.

Williams said the mayor should have helped Fortenberry with the budget amendments before the meeting, but Lockley said he has been criticized in the past for being too involved in day-to-day operations.

“It is a game being played, and that is not fair,” Williams said.

Lockley tried to interject, but Williams insisted, “I have the floor. ... If it is a problem, why not help him fix the problem? You are the leader of the city. All this is unnecessary what you are doing.” 

Cameron pointed to interim City Administrator Ebony Ross and said, “She is the leader of the city.” 

“Most of the time, the mayor of this city is a layperson, and the mayor is not even a full-time job,” he said. “I don’t know who is criticizing you. It is not your job to run this city. We pay a city administrator the big bucks to do that.”

Johnson called that statement “absurd.”

Cockerham then steered the meeting back on track, and the board went through the rest of it without any more arguments.

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