Rupert Howell column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pendulum shifts in alignment of county politics

Those interested should notice a massive political power shift occurring in Panola County.

Just a few years ago the late Supervisor Robert Avant could sway the direction of his supervisor board, especially with the help of former County Administrator David Chandler.

Chandler came to work as county administrator for the board in the late 1980s when the late David Ross Craig served as supervisor board president.

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At the time District Three supervisor Mac Benson was a staunch Craig ally. Craig would also have the backing of the District Four supervisor, initially Johnnie Cooper and later Dub Wilson. The three would navigate the board’s path while placating Avant and the then-current District One supervisor, whether they supported his direction or not.

After Craig died and Benson was defeated, Avant and Chandler became allies. A Chandler attempt at a run for Chancery Clerk got nasty before he eventually lost to Jim Pitcock, who still serves in that office.

Meanwhile Benson was again elected to the District Three post and was again close with Chandler who maintained his county administrator position following his failed bid for chancery clerk.

Benson became Avant’s ally through Chandler, which gave Avant a majority on the board with the help of James Birge in District One. Coupled with his close relationship with Chandler, Avant had both the board’s backing and backing from the man in county government who controlled day-to-day operations.

The late sheriff Shot Bright was the recipient of Avant and Chandler’s support, winning the office of sheriff first to fill an unexpired term followed by handily winning re-election for a full term. Chandler later established a bail bonds business that put him close to the new sheriff.

A powerful group of local officials emerged, including Avant, Chandler, Benson, Birge, Bright and Lygunnah Bean, who currently serves as road manager and was then district school board president— becoming a political consortium, whether planned or unplanned.

District Four supervisor Kelly Morris started making noise concerning higher taxes and county services after he first took office in 2008, but with Avant controlling the board’s majority, his complaints didn’t go far.

But the players changed again after Avant, and then Bright died. Benson was no longer supervisor and died, and finally Chandler was indicted.

(Throw in the fact that the most widely respected elected official in the area, Representative Leonard Morris, died in the mix and left his own leadership vacuum that was felt statewide.)

When District Three supervisor Gary Thompson was elected to the president’s position, Morris’s complaints got some traction, but it was when new county administrator Kelley Magee came on board that discrepancies began to come to surface.

What brought about the most recent political changes is matter of opinion, but two new supervisors, John Thomas from District Three and Cole Flint of District Five, were elected and came aboard at the first of this year. That gave Morris the majority he needed with two fiscal conservatives, Thomas, a farmer and Flint, a businessman. Morris was immediately elected as the new board’s president.

That majority coupled with a fiscally conservative county administrator and chancery clerk and the power structure has gone from one of entitlement-no-matter-the-costs to pay- as-you-go.

(Newly-elected Sheriff Dennis Darby has also taken a fiscally conservative stance, stating that there’s plenty of money for everything his department needs except deputies’ wages; it just needs to be spent wisely.)

Supervisors Flint and Thomas are spending their political energy and plan to be at tonight’s school board meeting trying to understand why so many driveways have either been paved or maintained in the name of school bus turn-arounds.

Among those listening will be road manager and school board member Lygunnah Bean as well as new school board trustee Buddy Gray who has taken  a “show me” approach and driven to several turn-around sites and private drives paved in the name of school bus turn arounds.

Turn-arounds have been suspected for years as being a way to circumvent laws prohibiting county government from working on private property.

Whether the perception has been overblown or not, a good “airing” of policy from both the county and school boards will either curtail alleged abuses or explain the need for numerous bus stops.

The cycle continues. It should continue to be interesting.