Jackson County

Is change needed for Ocean Springs government?

Members of the Ocean Springs Mayor and Board of Aldermen in a session earlier this year are Alderman Matt McDonnell, Alderman Chic Cody, Mayor Connie Moran and Alderman at large Bobby Cox.
Members of the Ocean Springs Mayor and Board of Aldermen in a session earlier this year are Alderman Matt McDonnell, Alderman Chic Cody, Mayor Connie Moran and Alderman at large Bobby Cox. SUN HERALD/FILE

A movement is afoot to have voters consider changing Ocean Springs government to include a city manager to run the city, a job the mayor has now.

It also might include changing ward lines or having aldermen elected citywide as councilmen. The group leader is passionate for change, but some say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

The type of government being proposed moves the mayor out of department management, but gives her a vote on the governing board.

George Conwill, a Biloxi casino executive who has lived in Ocean Springs for 20 years, is heading the move for change. A group is circulating a petition to collect the 1,050 signatures from registered voters needed to trigger a special election on the issue early next year. Or, he told the Sun Herald, it may be possible to get the issue on the ballot in the next city elections that begin in the spring to save costs.

He estimated a special election would cost the city between $8,000 and $10,000.

Conwill said the decision would be made by simple majority vote, 50 percent plus one. Voters also would be asked to decided on the number of council positions and how they would be elected. Ward lines would likely have to be redrawn.

But he’s passionate about hiring a manager for the city, one he says would run the city like a business, “more smoothly and more conscious of tax dollars.”

He said there are public forums planned to bring in leaders from Gautier, D’Iberville, Diamondhead or Pascagoula to teach Ocean Springs about their city managers.

City views on the issue

▪  Conwill, CFO for Palace Casino in Biloxi and petition leader, said: “City managers are skilled with a high degree of education. They have experience and accountability. It also takes the political process out of running the city. Councilmen can’t talk to department heads. The council, including the mayor, hires or fires the city manager. It’s not a Civil Service position. A simple majority of the board can fire them. Or they can rehire them every four years.

“There’s a lot of subjection on whether (Mayor Connie Moran) is doing a good job. That’s debatable, but this has nothing to do with Connie Moran, this has to do with our future. She may know how to run the city, but the next mayor may not. We want to grow, and this is the way.”

▪  Mayor Connie Moran: “The bottom line is, do the citizens want to have someone they elect to run the city or do they want a majority of the board to hire someone who is only accountable to the board. I have a master’s degree in finance and international economics from Georgetown University, where I was a Fulbright Scholar. I also have 20 years experience in state and local government, recruiting businesses, and 11 years as mayor with hands-on experience in recovery after Katrina, getting money through grants and building new parks and the Public Safety facility. The Mississippi Municipal League has distinguished me as a certified advanced, professional municipal official.

“Ocean Springs is doing well. Our budget is sound …. And I can hold my credentials up to anyone who qualifies as a city manager.

“I think this is strictly personal on behalf of several elected officials. I welcome the discussion …. City managers can be extremely political. Look at D’Iberville, city managers don’t last.

“I look forward to circulating my own petition to form a mayor-council form of government like Biloxi and Gulfport, where the mayor is still the leader and chief administrator the people elect.”

▪  Alderman Greg Denyer, attended early petition meetings: “I think it’s worth looking into; give the voters a right to look at it and decide. We are facing some really tight financial issues with water and other big things, infrastructure issues. I think we need someone full time that’s dedicated to that, someone who is not a politician, to run the day-to-day operations of the city … just professional budget management.

“This doesn’t need to be about Connie, it’s about how the city is to move forward in the future. I would love Ms. Moran to stay on as mayor, but I think the job has become too big for one person.”

▪  Alderman Jerry Dalgo: “I’m not in favor of it, because all you have to do is look around. I’m kind of proud of Ocean Springs and everything that’s been accomplished since I’ve been on the board. It’s all been done under the current form of government.

“It’s interesting the communities being held up as examples of a better way (Diamondhead, D’Iberville, Gautier). I had a city councilman from Gautier share something with me. There have been 21 city managers since they incorporated 28 years ago. They have interim managers that held the fort down for more than a year while they found a new one. And that can be a hard job to fill. It’s like trying to replace a city clerk, someone that knows everything about a city. It can be a nightmare.

“I just hope they get the truth out there, because figures they are using now don’t really paint an accurate picture. First of all, 95 percent of the cities in the state are mayor-aldermen ... and on television recently, they said the city has a budget of $26 million. But only $13 million of that is the general fund, something we can work with, and two-thirds of the $13 million goes to payroll. That’s doesn’t really leave a lot.”