Crenshaw Elections 2009

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 27, 2009

Ex-mayor seeks to lead crumbling Crenshaw

By Billy Davis

In tiny Crenshaw, perhaps a few hundred eligible voters in this town of 1,000 residents will go to the polls on May 5, the Democratic primary, to pick the town mayor and board of aldermen.

Or perhaps not.

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Fewer than 50 voters cast a ballot in 2005, when the town elected a new mayor and two new aldermen. 

“I think 45 voted in the last election,” recalled longtime Alderman Alberta Bradley, who has drawn opponent Dennis Handy. “And I have 116 eligible voters in my ward.”

In the mayor’s race, the choice on the ballot is uncomplicated: either choose to retain first-term mayor Sylvester Reed or bring back the former administrator, Oscar Barlow.

Reed defeated Barlow in 2005, unseating the three-term mayor by a narrow margin.

Regarding his loss, Barlow, in an interview last week, said he had been “worn out” after 12 years in office and failed to campaign vigorously to fight off Reed’s challenge.

The former mayor further explained that he failed to adequately defend a substantial change to the town’s water rates, a decision that also hurt his re-election effort.

During Barlow’s third term, Crenshaw was awarded a state grant to upgrade its water system. But the funds came with a clause: the town could no longer charge residents a flat monthly rate.

“We were told the water system must be profitable,” Barlow recalled.

With the upgrades in place, new water bills began arriving. Residents who weeks earlier could use as much water as they wanted, and waste it without consequence, were suddenly required to pay for what they used.

“I got blamed for it – all of it,” Barlow said. “I realize now I failed to explain it better.”

So Barlow found himself pitted against Reed, no newcomer to politics. Reed had served a single term as Quitman County supervisor and even his detractors in Crenshaw credit his political skills.

As Barlow’s challenger, Reed could chide the incumbent mayor and promise a better town.

And he did.

After the increase in water fees, and despite the requirement by the state, Reed’s political flyer promised “lowering our sewerage, garbage, and water rates, and more.”

The flyer also promised a recreation center, and “good” streets and law enforcement.

Reed told The Panolian in 2006 that town government was $90,000 in arrears, and two years behind on some payments, when he took office. Since then, the current mayor has repeatedly blamed the past administration – meaning Barlow – for Crenshaw’s money woes.

“Everybody was trying to close us down,” Reed said. “At times my main job was to give Peter and Paul a little bit each, so we managed it and got it down.”

But aldermen learned in January that town government, under Reed’s watch, now owed $107,312 to more than 30 vendors. More than 25 of the vendors were owed monies beyond 90 days.

The largest amount owed was $42,741 to Panola County Solid Waste for trash pick-up service.

The financial report was made possible after aldermen approved new accounting software for Crenshaw’s modest town hall.

Reed himself did not champion the need for new software, and some of the town’s aldermen, led by Bradley, have confronted him for more than a year about the town’s past-due bills.

Reed did not respond to a request for an interview, and he has refused other requests in recent years.

In The Panolian and The Southern Reporter, little coverage of Reed’s actions as mayor has been flattering.

Newspaper stories have documented his arguments at public meetings with town officials, including a shouting match with the fire chief last year, and arguments with the police chief and the public library’s head librarian over requests for adequate supplies and equipment.

“I’ve decided, if we need toilet paper and paper towels, I’m not going to get the mayor’s permission,” Martha Rayburn, the library branch manager, said last week as she helped children with computer work.

The Panolian has documented Reed’s repeated attempts to skirt parliamentary procedures, or even shout down aldermen, when he opposes the topic. At a special called meeting in 2007, Reed refused to allow a certified water operator to describe problems with the town’s water supply.

The Panolian reported in January 2007 that Reed paid a $500 fine to the State Ethics Commission when it was learned he attempted to purchase a vacant office building, which had been sought by the town, for himself. The building was owned by Atmos Energy.

Documents obtained by The Panolian showed that Reed intended for the property deed to be in his name. A copy of a phone request from Atmos showed that the company was given Reed’s full name, his wife’s name, his home address, and his Social Security number.  

“Come July, we’re going to change some things,” said Bradley, who served with Barlow and is backing his planned return to office.

According to Barlow, he is not promising to build a recreation center, get the streets paved, or lure businesses to Crenshaw.

 If voters put him back in office, Barlow said he will seek state and federal grants for the impoverished town – such as the water system grant that helped get him booted from office.

Barlow also said he will spearhead a cleanup of condemned property, an action that he said Reed has refused to do.

“The town is just trying to keep its head above water,” said Barlow. “I can’t promise them anything except that I’ll work hard and do what’s right.”