By STEVEN NALLEY
and CARL SMITH
Five members of the Starkville Beautification Committee resigned Monday and Tuesday.
While exiting members said they were frustrated with the direction of the group and its focus on downtown projects, a remaining member said she believes internal group friction and low meeting attendance played a part in the exodus.
City officials said Jane Loveless, Jim McKell, Richard Mullenax and Milo Burnham tendered their resignations Monday. Clyde Williams tendered his resignation Tuesday.
More than one resigning member, including Mullenax, said they felt the committee had become focused primarily on Main Street, to the exclusion of other areas of town.
“The Starkville Beautification Committee has evolved into the Main Street beautification committee, and I think my efforts could be better directed elsewhere,” Mullenax said. “I think my volunteer efforts could be best directed elsewhere. It’s just a difference of opinion.”
McKell said he felt the commission could have done something for other areas of Starkville, but the only area receiving its attention was downtown.
“I felt that the Starkville Beautification Committee maybe should have been called the ‘Downtown Merchants’ Committee’ or something,” he said.”
McKell said he also left out of frustration with the city administration’s current lack of funding.
Jennifer Gregory, a beautification committee member and representative of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership and the Starkville Main Street Association, said she was surprised by the resignations, but controversy had surrounded the board for almost a year.
In 2010, she said, trees along Main Street were removed and to be replaced with others. A major miscommunication between the committee and the landscape architect delayed the installation of the new trees, she said.
“When money was approved for the downtown landscaping, that’s as far as it went. Members weren’t given an opportunity to help select those plants,” Gregory said. “Several members of our committee that are experienced horticulturists were upset, and rightfully so. We know we should have received some recommendations from those members.”
To try and correct the situation, Gregory said members were consulted prior to the planting of spring annuals and perennials prior to this year’s Cotton District Arts Festival.
“It became apparent some members couldn’t get past the series of events from last year,” she said. “We’ve gone over that issue extensively and exhaustively. I believe that’s the root of the resignation.”
Gregory said when city initially offered to fund the committee, a group including her and members Jeremy Murdock and Dylan Karges began raising funds to try to match the money. Some of those donations were earmarked for specific projects, including ones along Main Street.
“Everyone was excited about the money being raised,” she said. “We, as a committee, accepted those funds and those projects tied to those funds. This list of projects has been known for almost year. We’ve also made various presentations to the board of aldermen on those projects. There have been no surprises.”
Murdock said the group chose to focus projects on downtown because of the location’s visibility.
“We felt our time and money was best suited for downtown,” he said.
Some money was left for general, non-earmarked projects, but many of the exiting group failed to offer project suggestions, she said.
In the committee’s most recent meeting, Murdock said members discussed shifting focus to other areas of the city.
Williams said his own reason for resigning was frustration with changes to the committee’s relationship with the city. He said these changes prevented the committee from doing its job effectively.
“That relationship has diminished almost entirely over the last couple of years,” Williams said. “We don’t see much happening other than putting trees on Main Street.”
When the committee was formed about five years ago, Williams said, the meetings were frequently attended by Starkville Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruil, City Planner Ben Griffith and Code Enforcement Officer Jeff Lyle.
“Having them appear frequently at committee meetings, they were able to learn of citizen concerns about problems and, in many cases, act to correct those problems,” Williams said. “The city officials had the support of citizens, and citizens had the support of city officials who were responsible for and responsive to change.”
Now, Williams said, the only city official the committee usually sees at its meetings is Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas. Williams said Spruill, Griffith and Lyle gave the committee more direct connections to the city’s inner workings, making the committee more effective.
Gregory said some of the members leaving the beautification committee had not been present for a meeting in months. Minutes, she said, were not kept during previous meetings, so absent members missed out on various committee discussions.
“To be productive you need to be present as much as possible,” she said. “It’s a volunteer committee and I know things happen we have own responsibilities, but attendance is key. “I know city beautification is very important to those who remain on the committee. Attendance from those who remain on the committee has been the strongest.”
Dumas said he appreciates the work the committee has done, and he considers the resignation of five members unfortunate.
“This committee was started under a previous administration, and it was clear what their direction was; however, it was clear this committee took a different direction with this administration,” Dumas said. “I definitely agree that our focus has been on downtown. Considering that we are only 18 months or so into the process, I think we accomplished a lot. Not only have we been proactive in being able to do downtown, but we’ve also been able to work with the Main Street Association for Christmas directions and other organizations to do way-finding signage — some really quintessential beautification projects.”
Dumas said he was not yet sure about the timetable for replacing the members who have resigned. He said the committee was created when the city had a great need for code enforcement, but the city now has a code enforcement officer who is doing well. The committee also predates the Main Street Association, which has filled a void the committee was once meant to fill.
“I’m not so sure that this committee won’t re-evaluated as a whole to see how it fits and what it does,” Dumas said.
According to the city website, the five members who resigned were among a total of 11 members, with Dumas and Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey acting as liaisons to the board of aldermen and city staff support coming from Lyle and Spruill.
Milo Burnham declined to comment for this article. Jane Loveless could not be reached for comment at press time.