By LaReeca Rucker
Adjunct Journalism Instructor
University of Mississippi
One of the first assignments Oxford Stories reporters are given each semester is to attend an Oxford Board of Aldermen meeting and share their insights.
They are told that quite often journalists are the only connection the public has to city government. If it were not for local reporters who act as representatives of the people in their communities by learning and sharing important information, a majority of citizens would have no idea what happens with local government affairs. Mayors and aldermen could give themselves raises or do whatever they wanted if no one was present to hold them accountable.
Journalists, on the local and national level, are important to our democracy, and they have important jobs as representatives of the citizens of their communities. It is their job to ask government leaders tough questions and report those answers back to the people so that they can make informed decisions about who they elect, or hire, to serve them. Government leaders work for and are employed by the citizens. Not the other way around.
Madison Hyatt, a sophomore from Kansas City, Missouri, is a broadcast journalism major who hopes to become a real-estate lawyer. Last year, she was selected as one of the Oxford Stories Reporters of the Year. Hyatt attended the Feb. 7 Oxford Board of Aldermen meeting along with other Oxford Stories reporters.
“The mayor opened the board of alderman meeting by addressing the journalism students in the room,” Hyatt said, adding that he discussed Oxford’s affordable housing and cost of living issues. “The mayor also said students are welcome to discuss issues further with members of the board, should we choose to pursue a story.”
Hyatt said the mayor also spoke to the crowd of student journalists about petit theft and vandalism issues among college students. “I found it interesting that the mayor so openly directed the issue of theft at students,” she said. “It leads me to believe that it has become a substantial issue.”
Oxford citizen Kaye Bryant, who has been involved with tree farming since she was 5, told the board that the Mississippi timber market is depressed, and many county mills have been lost.
“With ongoing development in Oxford, Bryant wanted to make sure that, should the city decide to annex land that contains her tree farm, the farm would remain untouched,” Hyatt said. “She asked that tree farmers be treated the same as soy or cotton farmers because trees are also crops.”
Hyatt said other issues discussed were the loading and unloading zone on South Lamar, and an approval request for eminent domain action for properties on West Oxford Loop.
Sarah Henderson, 20, is a sophomore from San Angelo, Texas, who studies print journalism, minors in digital media design, and she plans to become a magazine or website designer. After college, she hopes to live in Texas and work with a magazine or newspaper.
“The meeting was a place for citizens to voice their concerns about the city and make arrangements to better the little town,” she said. “The mayor quickly realized many journalism students were present, and first addressed the issue of petit theft in Oxford. According to our mayor, street signs have gone missing throughout the town, and he blames it on Ole Miss students. He said the police department would be cracking down on petit theft offenders, and students should not take sign stealing lightly.”
Henderson said Bryant told the board that her father, Elton Hooker, helped bring pine trees to Mississippi, and that tree farms are just as important as any other Mississippi crop.
“Bryant said she is now in charge of her family’s tree farm, and the Mississippi tree farm fears losing land to development daily. She urged the community to understand that tree farming is vastly important, and that if a cotton farmer is not expected to mitigate their land, she should not be expected to mitigate hers. The mayor and board were interested in her cause, and agreed to help Bryant pursue fair treatment as long as proper documentation is presented.”
Henderson said the board listened to many ideas and concerns from citizens, and talked about how to make Oxford better. “The meeting was informative, and I am interested in what actions are taken to address the problems in Oxford, especially with the tree mitigation situation,” she said.
Julia Wickes, 19, is a freshman at the University of Mississippi who is originally from Dallas, Texas. Wickes is a broadcast journalism major, who hopes to become a football field reporter or a fashion and beauty blogger.
“As always, the mayor joked with journalism students in the room saying students would not be able to leave early, and there would be someone guarding the door,” Wickes said. “The board was a civil event in which most issues did not result in any upset, unlike the last meeting journalism students attended.”
During the 2016 fall semester, students attended a board meeting during which concerned citizens spoke about affordable housing issues. Other issues discussed during the last meeting included a proposed parking garage set to be built near the Square, fire prevention and protection, and a woman’s water bill.
“A resident at 321 Country Club Road had her water turned off for a month, but when she received a bill for the month, it showed that the water, at some point, had been turned back on without the owner’s knowledge or permission,” Wickes said. “The resident attended the meeting with her young son. The board ended up giving a one-time grant to adjust the bill.”
Wickes said the board also discussed a request for eminent domain for properties on West Oxford Loop because there is a public need for transportation where these properties are currently located.
Gulfport native Skye Spiehler, 19, is a freshman broadcast journalism major. He said the Feb. 7 meeting was the second board meeting he has attended, and he was able to better follow the meeting this time, even though keeping up with the issues was difficult.
“The man sitting in the middle (who I believe was the mayor) jumped to different points on the agenda randomly multiple times,” he said. “What seemed more calculated and intentional, though, was the tone of the mayor’s voice when speaking about different issues, which was at times playful and lighthearted, and at others serious and meaningful.
“At one point, he called up two elementary school-aged girls when they accidentally made noise on their children’s tablet. Scared to death, they approached the mayor, and he asked their names, ages, and even joked, asking whether or not they were a part of the large group of University of Mississippi journalism students in attendance.”
However, earlier in the meeting, Spiehler said the mayor spoke in a way that “made everyone in the room aware of the gravity of his words.”
“He said the amount of petit theft and vandalism happening in the city has become ‘ridiculous,’ and he is going to make sure law enforcement cracks down on future offenders of these crimes,” he said. “He directed the statement specifically towards students, saying young adults within the college community have been the primary violators.”
Spiehler said the board also talked about eminent domain. “They will be acquiring the land of four property owners and giving them compensation in order to improve the city’s public transportation system,” he said.
And the board opened discussions on the basic design and layout of the parking garage, set to be built next to the Square offering more than 500 spaces.
“While observing the events that took place during the board of aldermen meeting and hearing all of the topics the board discussed, I noticed something quite interesting,” Spiehler said. “Not only did the board discuss measures to address the needs of large masses of citizens, but they also were willing to rule on an issue only affecting a single individual. They offered one woman—whose water bill was either much higher than it should have been, or it should not have been issued at all—a discount on her payment since a discrepancy existed.
“My big takeaway from the meeting was that, we as citizens, do still have the ability to directly communicate with our government’s leaders and policymakers, and using this power to the best of our ability can be greatly beneficial for us.”
Ocean Springs native Darby Johnson, a UM sophomore majoring in journalism with a minor in history, plans to become an investigative journalist and travel the world.
“This meeting was more interesting than the one I went to last semester for Journalism 102,” Johnson said. “It had a lot of information related to the expansion of Oxford, which has become a big topic of conversation in Oxford, since it is one of the fastest growing cities in Mississippi.
“I really appreciated that the board asked the journalism students, or just the people in the back, if we had questions or concerns on certain matters. If there was an issue that we knew nothing about and needed background information to understand, the board would give that knowledge.”
Patrick Fawcett, 22, who is majoring in general studies, is from Columbia, South Carolina. Fawcett hopes to work for his family business, a liquor and wine distribution company.
“This was my first time ever attending anything like this,” he said. “I am glad that I attended. I am not going to say it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, but it was a lot more interesting than I was expecting it to be.
“Mayor Pat Patterson does a good job leading the meetings,” said Fawcett. “He was not thrilled to have a bunch of students there, or maybe just thrown off by it. But he addressed the students first first.”
Fawcett said he realized that anyone who has a particular issue that is relevant to the town has a chance to be heard at the meeting.
“A lady who spoke about her water bill was interesting because she was just an average lady, but she got her way at the meeting,” he said. “Overall, it was pretty neat to hear the people who call a lot of the shots around town speak and express their opinions. I am glad we had to attended one of these meetings, because I probably never would have thought about something like this.”
Peyton Sams, 20, is a junior from Atlanta majoring in journalism with an emphasis in broadcast. She is passionate about sports. Ten years from now, Sams envisions living in a large city, such as Dallas or Nashville, and fulfilling her dreams of becoming a sports broadcaster.
“I had no idea what to expect going into this meeting,” Sams said. “My attention was immediately drawn to the council of people sitting behind desks on stage. They were all dressed very professionally and came with organized folders of paperwork to reference throughout their meeting.”
One issue that caught her attention was Fire Chief Mark Heath’s request for permission to authorize a mutual agreement between the Oxford Fire Department and the Lafayette County Fire Department.
“The agreement focuses on the chief’s belief that it is best to create ‘controlled burns’ or controlled fires instead of going to landfills to eliminate waste,” she said. “Some board members were skeptical and not afraid to ask the chief questions. The chief informed the board that the controlled burn would be closely monitored, and they will be working with the National Weather Service to make sure it would take place at a safe time.”
Sams said she enjoyed the mayor’s ability to connect with the citizens and students attending the meeting.
“A fellow journalism student brought two of her children with her, and in the middle of the meeting, the mayor suddenly paused the order of business taking place,” she said. “Patterson asked the two little girls to come to the stage, asked them their age, asked if they fought a lot, and personally thanked them for being there and wished they would come back in the future. This simple pause in the meeting to address the little girls presence really stood out to me.
“At the end of the meeting, Patterson closed with, ‘Now y’all go hit the bars.’ Patterson’s ability to relate to the people among him shows his desire to connect with the Oxford community on a deeper level.”
Sams said the meeting taught her a lot about the city of Oxford.
“It is obvious that the board is diligent, hardworking, and dedicated to handling individual and citywide issues taking place in the community,” she said. “Not only did it teach me several important things, it gave me inspiration for stories I can report about for the future.”
Lydazja Turner, 18, is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. Her career is to become a radio host or vlogger.
“The board meeting on Feb. 7 was very interesting for me,” Turner said. “This felt like the first step to my career because I had never been to anything like that. Overall, everyone was very kind and welcoming towards the journalism students. I received a lot of great story ideas because I am interested in environmental studies. Most of the topics that were discussed pertained to the environment, building parking garages, and vandalism.”
Turner said she was interested in learning more about the tree farmer issue. “How many other farmers in Oxford feel this way? How many other farms feel at risk ?”
Turner said she thought of other story ideas related to the parking garage. “How do the citizens feel about Oxford parking? How do business owners feel? Is business down because of the lack of parking? Would a parking garage take the feeling and culture of the Square away?”
Christian Johnson, 18, is a University of Mississippi freshman majoring in journalism and minoring in political science. He is from Kennett, Missouri and served as a staff reporter and photographer for his high school newspaper. He is passionate about politics and hopes to work as a political correspondent with a major newspaper such as The Washington Post or The New York Times.
“Yesterday, Feb. 8, was the first time that I’ve ‘covered’ city news,” he said. “I’ve been a reporter for my high school newspaper for three years, but I have never had an experience with elected officials. It was very different, as the most important stories I have ever covered have been school board issues and sports. This meeting may not have been as eventful or as interesting as I hoped, but it was a new experience and important nonetheless.”
Johnson said the board of alderman is one of the major governing bodies of Oxford, and it is imperative that the meetings are covered.
“Though the life of a reporter may not always be a glamorous as it seems, it is an essential part to keep the public informed and in control,” he said. “With this said, to be completely honest, the meeting was very hard to follow. It felt as if I was thrown into the middle of a movie that I had no background information on. Many of the topics discussed were continuations of past meetings and weren’t properly addressed.”
However, Johnson found several points interesting. “The most interesting to me was the older woman who was a tree farmer,” he said. “I was actually interested in what she had to say as she gave her background and why it is important to her. I am also very in-tune with environmental and climate change issues.
“These meetings are important because it is one of the few links to the inner workings of local government that locals have. Very few locals and others actually stay informed about local news. This means that it’s up to journalists to relay what is happening to the public. Our job as reporters is to ensure that board members and other officials don’t pass laws that benefit themselves, and limit corruption.”
St. Louis, Missouri native Angelica Pecha, is a freshman journalism and fashion merchandising major who is minoring in Spanish. Pecha discovered her love for journalism in high school as a staff writer and reporter for the school newspaper. She hopes to combine her passion for writing and fashion and write for a major fashion magazine.
“Last week, I attended the board of alderman meeting, which was also my first city council experience,” she said. “To be honest, the meeting seemed to be a blur. The issues discussed were extremely specific. It felt like I had walked into the middle of someone’s conversation.”
Pecha said she felt like she’d have to attend several meetings to fully understand what was being discussed.
“I noticed that this meeting was not necessarily considered ‘action-packed,'” she said. “The head of the board asked for ‘all in favor’ and ‘all opposed’ to every topic discussed, and there was not one instance where there was a disagreement. Each member of the board was in favor of every topic, so they moved through topics semi-quickly.”
Pecha said she believes more people would become involved in city government if they better understood when the meetings are held and what topics will be discussed.
“I think that the city of Oxford should greater advertise their board meetings,” she said. “It would be nice to know what topics are being discussed when. That way more people can get involved within the community.
“Although unrealistic, I do wish that the language of the board meetings was simpler, so that anyone could follow what the board members were saying. After all, the point of weekly board meetings is to improve our city, and the only way to improve the city is by letting any member of the community know what is happening around them.”
Reagan Smith, 21, is a junior majoring in integrated marketing and communications, commonly known as IMC, with hopes of later finding employment at a marketing firm in her hometown, Dallas.
“When I first walked into the courthouse, I had no idea what to expect,” she said. “The room was much smaller than I expected, and there were a lot more people than I anticipated, so we had to stand along the back wall …
“When they started the meeting, it seemed like we had jumped into the middle of a conversation, and I had no idea what they were talking about. As the meeting went on, my peers and I started to understand how the process worked and what to write down.”
Addis Olive, 20, is a sophomore IMC major from North Carolina. She aspires to work for Buzzfeed or live in New York City and work in public relations.
“Before the city of Oxford Board of Aldermen meeting began, chatter filled the room,” she said. “It seemed like the non-journalism students in attendance knew each other well. The mayor, leading the meeting, started to announce a few changes on the schedule for the evening by addressing numbers like ’22A, and 29 through 10A.’ Confusion was apparent on the faces in the crowd.”
Olive said the tree farm issue was most interesting to her. “The Oxford/Lafayette area apparently used to be known as the reforestation capital of the world, which is no longer true with new building developments,” she said. “… With the information given about deprived tree farmers, I could go into further research about the problem.”
The meeting ended with short summaries of the day’s discussion and some unfamiliar sentences that only council members understood, she said.
“The mayor dismissed us by saying, ‘Now go have fun at the bars,'” she said. “Throughout the meeting, he kept advocating that students in attendance should feel free to contact his office if one had any questions or would like a quote from him. After an hour, the meeting was adjourned.
“I enjoyed listening and watching the board meeting as a first-time observer. The crowd and the council interacted in a friendly way, and it was not as intimating as I expected. I would definitely go again for more story idea inspiration. I also strongly encourage students to try and attend a board meeting to expand their knowledge of what’s going on in Oxford.”
Nancy Jackson, 20, is a broadcast journalism major and political science minor from Athens, Georgia. Her goal is to attend law school and pursue a career in media law or to become a successful television reporter.
“My overall opinion of the board meeting was that it was shockingly fast-paced,” Jackson said. “I had expected the meeting to be very slow moving and uninteresting, but I was surprised when it was the complete opposite”
Jackson said the meeting was difficult to follow as a college student because she wasn’t aware of many of the topics discussed.
“What I liked most about the meeting was that there seemed to be many different types of personalities and characters in attendance, especially the mayor,” she said. “I saw a glimpse of this as the meeting came to a close when the mayor shifted his attention back to the college students and said, ‘Y’all can go hit the bars. Get out.'”
Georgia Williams said, although the meeting was somewhat boring and confusing at times, there were issues discussed that she felt were important.
“It was not the first time I have been to a public city meeting, but it did have a different setup than the other town meetings I have attended,” she said. “Overall, the meeting was not very captivating, but I did pay attention and learn a little about what is going on within the Oxford-Lafayette community.”
Betsy Veazey said she was confused by the meeting.
“For most of the meeting, I sat in confusion, not really being able to hear what was going on,” she said. “After a man and woman left, they let me and my friend, Madison, have their seats on the second row, where I could finally hear the discussion going on in the front of the room. Even though the meeting was about over, I have a feeling the end was the most interesting part.
“…My experience at the board of aldermen meeting was an overall pleasant one. However, I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had gone to the previous one where I knew more about what they were doing, taken my glasses, and gotten a good seat at the beginning of the meeting. I would advise anyone to go, at least once, to see how much goes into the running of our small town.”
Jessica Duffield, 19, is a freshman from the Dominican Republic majoring in journalism. She graduated from the Abraham Lincoln School in La Romana, where she started their first school magazine. Her dream is to live in a big city like New York after college and work for a magazine company like The New York Times. She also plans on writing books.
“My first board meeting was more like my first taste of journalism,” she said. “Before the board meeting started, I was intrigued to see what it had to offer to me and my learning experience. I had never been to one, and to go to one feeling like it was my first ‘journalism task’ was exciting and scary.
“I felt that everybody in the room knew I was a journalist, so I presented myself as one. I sat down, took a notebook and a pen and started writing. At first, I was confused at what was going on. People from every corner of the room were talking about something they all knew about except me. I felt lost and alone.”
Duffield said people were asking for permission to do certain things in the city. She got some words, facts and figures, but not the entire story.
“I was freaking out,”she said. “The more people got up and asked for permission, the more lost I got. I wrote down everything I could grasp in short notes and key terms that I knew I could look back at and understand, just like I would do when studying for an exam. The entire time, I said to myself I was doing it wrong – that I should write everything they say, but that was impossible. I wrote names, numbers and short words.”
When the board meeting was finally over, Duffield said she went back to her dorm disappointed and sad, thinking she betrayed herself by not being able to write as fast as they spoke.
“I opened my book and started reading the things I wrote,” she said. “I talked to myself about every little note I had. I talked, talked and talked. Then stopped. I knew everything that happened at the board meeting from my short key terms. I was amazed by how much my mind could add to the small words, names and dates I had on my book.
“That’s when I realized that being a journalist does not necessarily mean being able to write down every word they say, but instead be able to pick out the most important and the ones you can expand into your own words and make it your story. My first board meeting was indeed my first taste of journalism, and I am ready to taste some more.”