By LaReeca Rucker
Adjunct Journalism Instructor
University of Mississippi
As watchdogs of society, journalists are often charged with covering city council and board of aldermen meetings. Sometimes, they are the only ones present, except for board members and other city leaders.
Even though city board meetings are open to the public, it’s possible that a majority of the town’s citizens have never attended a meeting to see city business conducted unless something controversial on the agenda lured them to city hall to voice their opinion. You may be one of those citizens who has opted to let city leaders make unsupervised decisions.
Last week, University of Mississippi Meek School of Journalism student reporters, who write for OxfordStories.net, a news website and wire service that sends their stories to local news publications, were asked to attend their first Oxford Board of Aldermen meeting.
During the meeting, the board discussed raising the salaries of the mayor and board of aldermen, affordable housing issues, parking problems and a few other city topics. We asked the student journalists their impression of witnessing city government in action for the first time.
Georgia native Gracie Snyder is a UM sophomore and broadcast journalism major, who wants to be a sports journalist. She said affordable housing was the biggest topic of the evening.
“Fred Laurenzo, a contributing creator of the nonprofit organization LOU-Home, discussed the plan and need for affordable housing in Oxford,” Snyder said. “This address was very impassioned and drew the most contribution of opinions from the public present in the courtroom, specifically from Oxford Creek residents apprehensive about the implementation of affordable housing homes within their neighborhood. This topic definitely presented itself as one that I want to actively pursue because the reaction it drew from the audience.”
Snyder said she learned a lot from the meeting.
“Having never covered a board meeting before, it was such a needed experience to attend this meeting,” she said. “I learned an ample amount about the (Lafayette-Oxford-University) community and, consequently, I feel much more connected to the issues surrounding the community. I feel prepared to pursue various projects mentioned in this board meeting and would love to begin regularly attending these meetings.”
San Angelo, Texas, native Amanda Hirschfeld, 18, is a UM freshman studying integrated marketing communications with an emphasis in public relations. Hirschfeld said the board discussed raising the mayor and aldermen salaries. She said city leaders reported the mayor and board haven’t had raises the past eight years
City Clerk Ashley Atkinson said the Sept. 6 meeting was the first reading of an ordinance proposed to raise salaries of the mayor and board. The second reading and public hearing will be Sept. 20, and the final reading and vote will be Oct. 4. Atkinson said the mayor’s current salary is $72,800, and the aldermen earn $14,000. If passed, the annual salary of the mayor would be $85,000, and the salaries of each alderman would be $18,500 effective July 1, 2017.
Dallas native Ally Langston is a UM sophomore majoring in journalism who wants to pursue an emphasis in public relations. Her field experience includes being an intern for The Dallas Morning News.
“There were some tough, argumentative moments when difficult subjects came up,” she said, recalling the board meeting. A challenging moment came during the housing discussion.
“Residents who lived near the area who would be affected by the construction came to the stand to argue against building the development or having it relocated,” she said. “To build the homes, construction workers would have to tear down the woods that provide a nice backyard view behind their home.”
Langston said residents also spoke about parking problems.
“One member of the audience came and argued how he was frustrated that he has to buy a parking sticker to park outside his own house when he has been a resident in Oxford for over 30 years,” she said. “The board of alderman was considerate, respectful, and tried their best to help all of those citizens who had any problems with Oxford. The board seemed genuinely concerned with those who disagreed with any decisions they made that day.”
Birmingham native Fairlie Outland is a UM sophomore majoring in journalism and minoring in business. She found the housing discussions interesting.
“I personally thought it sounded like a great idea, as well, and thought that it would be a good step in helping solve the housing issue in the city of Oxford,” she said, recalling her initial reaction to the housing problem. “After listening to the man propose his idea, we got to hear some of the residents of a nearby neighborhood voice their opinions on the idea …After hearing from the neighbors, I felt bad for them, and it left me wondering whether I actually think this plan is a good idea.”
Hattiesburg native Meredith Enger is a sophomore broadcast journalism major. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career in broadcast management.
“Before arriving at the meeting, I looked over the meeting’s agenda,” she said. “Many things listed seemed pointless and irrelevant to me. I was questioning the importance of the board and was dreading this meeting. Once I arrived, I was instantly aware of the board’s importance.”
Enger said the housing issue was interesting.
“Many people who work in Oxford are forced to live in cities surrounding Oxford because of the substantial cost of housing,” she said. “Laurenzo also made it clear that this plan would not solve the housing crisis, but would be an important first step. I believe that everyone should be able to live where they work, but I agree with the board that this plan needs work.”
An Le is a junior integrated marketing communications major with a Russian minor.
“There was a consent session where seemingly mundane things needed to be approved, like employee resignations, promotions, trips, and even approval of taxi drivers,” Le said. “Hiring, promoting, firing, and even resignations of city employees have to be approved by the board members before beginning to take action.”
Le found the parking issues interesting.
“It seems as if parking is not only a problem on the Ole Miss campus, but also in the city of Oxford as well,” she said. “With its growing population and increased number of incoming students, as well as regular citizens, parking has become a huge problem – especially with football season coming and people parking in any place that their car can fit. Having strangers park and or block driveways and property has been irritating the residents of Oxford.”
Midland, Texas native Mac Hinojos is a UM managerial finance major who is pursuing a career in financial management. He found the housing discussions interesting.
“(Some) residents from the community at the meeting were concerned about how the value of their current home would be affected,” he said. “The proposal featured a lot of positivity and great ideas. However, members of the community and the board of alderman gave great criticism and insight on the proposal.
“The meeting was well organized, prepared, and professional. Meetings, such as the board of alderman, create a great opportunity to get involved in your community. The board members, and those making proposals, encourage interaction from the people of Oxford in order to provide a better community.”
St. Louis, Missouri, native Kathryn Abernathy is a UM sophomore who wants to become a broadcast journalist in the sports or entertainment field.
“I can honestly say it was nothing like I had ever experienced before,” she said, recalling the meeting. “To be quite honest, I really did not know what to expect. I figured they would talk about the city’s problems, and it would be excruciatingly long.
“Well, it was long, but they did more than just talk about the city’s problems. They listened to the residents’ opinions and concerns, and I found it very endearing.
“Yes, at times I truly I had no idea what they were talking about, but it was still interesting to look around the room and see all of these people so engaged with what the mayor, the board, and residents were saying.”
Atlanta native Emma McCabe, 19, is a UM student majoring in journalism with a minor in English. She enjoyed the housing discussion.
“Many of the people who need this housing provide staple services for the community,” she said. “For example, the housing would go towards the janitors or waitresses trying to provide for families. Many of these people live outside Oxford because they cannot afford housing and can’t make the long commute to work, if they even have a car at all …Oxford is working steadily to work for the people.”
Bailey Martin, 19, is a UM sophomore from Tupelo. Martin’s major is broadcast journalism with a minor in psychology, and she plans to attend law school.
“I had no idea what they were going to be speaking about,” she said. “I read the agenda, but still was a smidge confused. I walked in expecting to see everyone in suits and business attire. …Being my first board meeting, it ended up better than expected, because I wasn’t thinking that it would be so crowded, and I definitely wasn’t expecting it to get heated over a housing plan.”
Anne Merrill Jones is a UM sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism, who wants to be an entertainment journalist, hosting E! News.
“I have never had to cover an event like this before — I am used to and comfortable with either being assigned a story, given suggestions, or told to find a story on my own that called for me to explore what was around me. I’ve never had to go to a meeting and listen for something to write about.
“I struggled, in all honesty, with taking notes and attempting to keep up with what was happening at the front of the room. I felt so unsure of myself and what I was doing because I had no interaction with the members of the board or those who address it other than simply being in the same room as them — no one-on-one conversation, no question and answer. Just the voices in the room and my pen and paper.”
Jones found the housing issue interesting.
“It was interesting to me, because I never thought about the thousands of people within Oxford who are not students,” she said. “They cannot move into The Retreat or The Hub, where rent could be as cheap as $400 a month. These are people with important jobs in the community, with their families here, who cannot afford many of the houses on today’s pricey market.
“I was astonished by some of the responses that were given to this, especially by so many people fearing that it would not be a smart choice. How could providing for those less fortunate be bad? I think this would be an interesting topic to follow, as the board said there would still be further public hearings on the topic, and also because there were so many other topics brought up within it that could be interesting stories.”
Christiansburg, Virginia, native Kady Cox, 19, is a UM sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism with a minor in English. Her dream job is to be a sideline analyst for college football.
“Both sides had very valid arguments all to accomplish one goal, helping workers simply live in the city they work in,” she said. “The meeting was eye-opening to some of the issues that go on in a town I now call my home, and that there is life outside our campus and the ‘world of Ole Miss.’”
Jack Hall is a freshman journalism major. He served as a staff reporter, photographer, sports editor, and editor of his high school newspaper. Hall won two consecutive Orley Hood Awards and the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association’s Journalist of the Year Award.
Here are some of his observations.
“The board is composed of four white men, two black men, and three women. The members seemed to work together seamlessly …The fact that most votes are unanimous indicates that most decisions have likely been decided beforehand. That can be taken as the board members are a tight-knit group of efficient public servants, though others may have other interpretations.
“Modern technology has influenced the board. Three televisions showed the agenda for the board meeting and, at times, supporting documents for the current topic. There were microphones for speakers and aldermen, and a video camera recording the session. The law enforcement present reminded me it’s a government function …
“The board mentioned the city economy has grown by $97 million dollars in five years. One board member stated, ‘As we grow, our budget grows, and we are in great shape.’”
Skyler Crane, 19, is a UM sophomore double majoring in journalism with an emphasis in print and a specialization in public relations and general studies focusing on Japanese, English and professional writing.
“A casual tone permeated the entire meeting, and many matters felt as if they were already decided upon beforehand as many matters were introduced and then immediately dealt with,” he said. “…The entire affair was less formal than I imagined it would have been.”
Dallas native Julia Wickes, 19, hopes to work for ESPN one day.
“Most Oxford residents and the board members agreed that Oxford needs affordable housing for the workers who do so much for the community, but cannot afford to live in Oxford city limits,” she said. “But, they feel that there is a lot more to consider when it comes to location and reasoning. … It is clear that the topic of donating land for affordable housing created controversy and is a major concern of the community.”
San Angelo, Texas, native Sarah Henderson is a UM sophomore studying print journalism with a public relations specialization. She dreams of becoming a writer for Southern Living or a newspaper columnist.
“(The board) took care of business, but they had a good time doing it,” she said. “The meeting also gave me a new perspective of all of the different things happening in Oxford. Most of the issues discussed were things that we do not normally think about, or even know is happening, but the board of alderman takes careful consideration of all issues involving the Oxford community.”
Alec Keyzer-Andre is from Kennesaw, Georgia. The UM sophomore is studying broadcast journalism and plans to become a video editor or script writer. He said he’s always been interested in how media and writing go hand-in-hand and how the media can influence and shape society.
“The board of aldermen meeting was a neat experience,” he said. “I never believed how powerful public opinion can be on an issue until I attended this meeting.
“All of the members seem to enjoy their job and are genuinely nice people that love their community, and this meeting also gave me perspective on other sides of issues I never would have thought of before. The board of aldermen are crucial to public voice and decision-making inside a community, so it might be important to attend the next meeting and have your own opinion voiced.”
Jackson native Hunter Ransom, 19, is a UM sophomore majoring in political science with a minor in journalism. He plans to work for the government or attend law school.
“This was my first board meeting, and I would say I enjoyed it,” he said. “With my major political science, I’ll sometimes sit in class and think, ‘This is kind of boring. How am I going to enjoy my career, or even be good at it?’ However, going to events like these give me a bit of reassurance. The basics of the material might be a little boring, but that’s not all I’ll be learning. Hearing about issues like these and how everyone deals with them is interesting to me.”
Elijah Coombs is an English major from Washington state.
“Stepping foot in City Hall to attend the City of Oxford Board meeting was a new experience,” he said. “Having never attended a board meeting before, there was little to expect … I found that board meetings are a great way to truly see what your city is doing currently, what they are doing in the near future, and how you can impact the ideas presented.
“During the proposal by the affordable housing committee, there was a public call asking residents who would be affected by the proposal to comment and speak before the board. Also there was a call to the audience, giving all who attended the opportunity to ask questions … It opened my eyes to the ease of which you can voice your opinion to the individuals in positions to act. I also noticed that many of the people who attended the meeting were there for specific topics.
“I think it is important to learn how your city government is run, and how you can have a voice. Everything they talked about was important to have a community view and acceptance of, and seeing that there were less than 80 people truly getting involved from the community was surprising to me. When I move to a new city, I will definitely be someone who is attending these meetings so my voice is heard among the board.”