In Pelahatchie, a small Mississippi city, the town’s first black mayor struggles to exert control.
In June of 2017, Ryshonda Harper Beechem, 38, became the first black mayor of Pelahatchie, Mississippi, a small town just over 25 miles east of the state’s capital city, Jackson. She is also the first black mayor in the entire surrounding majority-white county.
In a no-runoff election with a turnout of 442 people in a town of about 1,300, Beechem won with a slim 12-vote margin, beating out the two other white women candidates.
But things haven’t gone smoothly for Beechem working with the Pelahatchie Board of Aldermen—the town’s legislative authority, which operates much like a city council. While some might assume Beechem’s difficulties stem from racial tension, the board is diverse: It is comprised of one white woman, two black men and two white men. All were elected or re-elected to four-year terms at the same time as Beechem’s election; three were incumbents. The board has hastily announced rule changes and salary cuts, presented new hires without consulting the mayor, and has often overridden her vetoes of their decisions. (The board can either accept or override a mayoral veto.)
But it’s the slashing of her pay that has garnered the most attention.
On February 5, the board of aldermen cut Beechem’s salary by 75 percent and halved their own salaries. The mayor and the board now make the same salary: $250 per month. The mayoralty in Pelahatchie is a part-time position that previously earned a salary of $12,000.
A university survey of Mississippi mayoral salaries shows that in some similar-sized cities with part-time mayors and a board of aldermen, mayors make more than the aldermen, with salaries as much as 120 times more than Beechem’s. There are even a handful of towns of fewer than 500 residents with part-time mayors earning more than Beechem. There are also towns in Mississippi where aldermen make more than part-time mayors, but these tend to be the exception.
When in February, one of the aldermen surprised Beechem by proposing the pay cut, which was not listed on the agenda at the outset of the meeting, the other board members sided with him unanimously, citing a need for budget cuts.
Beechem is an accountant by training, and she and her husband run an accounting business, an academy for children, and a media company. She says the budget was fine without such extreme pay cuts.
Beechem said that the mayor making the same as the aldermen does not make sense to her because the mayor is “superintendent-control over the town, which requires more time being spent to run the town,” she said. The aldermen meet for monthly board meetings and make the legislative decisions that the mayor ensures get executed day-to-day.
Beechem wrote a veto of the pay cut of her salary, laying out her finding of “no confidence” in the board and its financial dealings because of an ongoing state auditor’s investigation of Pelahatchie for alleged misappropriation of funds, an investigation that began as early as late 2017. The three town clerks resigned in the first three months of 2018, with two walking out one afternoon in March while Beechem was out of the office, she said.
Beechem’s first and only appointment has been an interim town clerk this March, only after the board tried to appoint its own choice without consulting her, she said. The board later accepted Beechem’s veto of the board’s choice for clerk and approved a different interim clerk, a woman Beechem brought over from clerking at the police department after the two clerks walked out. The board of aldermen budgeted for two permanent clerks who have not yet been appointed.
Beechem’s relationship with the board has turned hostile during the past months. Since she began her tenure, the board almost always votes in a unanimous bloc, with Beechem often writing vetoes she now publishes on a Facebook page, only to have the board frequently overturn them in the following meeting. Residents of the town avidly debate Pelahatchie politics online, some questioning the town’s financial dealings, others calling the mayor unprofessional, some citing racism in the board’s treatment of Beechem.
At the same meeting where Beechem’s salary was cut, the board voted to ban cellphones at meetings, which the mayor also vetoed, writing, “If disruption of meetings by cellphone usage is the legitimate concern, there are numerous other ways to go about preventing such disruption, without depriving citizens their right to record everything which takes place in our public forum.” This veto was upheld by the board later that month.
No aldermen returned calls or voicemails by press time, and the ones who did answer the phone hung up at the mention of Beechem.
Pelahatchie is part of the Jackson metro area, which has seen dramatic white and economic flight into the outer counties like Rankin County, where Pelahatchie is located. Jackson went from around 100,000 white residents in 1980 to 30,000 in 2010. Meanwhile, the outer metro area, which includes Pelahatchie, saw white residents increase by around 50,000 in that same time frame.
Inside the town hall, a middle-aged white man approached Beechem as he came in to pay a utility bill.
“Are you surviving all this stuff you have to go through?” he asked the mayor. Beechem said she was “hanging tough” and sticking to the laws.
“You hang in there…I just want you to succeed and be the best mayor we’ve ever had,” the man added before leaving town hall.
Purple banners with the town’s slogan, “A Place to Prosper,” hang on every third utility pole with American Flags on the others. Beechem wants to provide what those banners proclaim, but not at her expense.
“I just believe everyone should be treated fairly—including the mayor.”