AT FIRST GLANCE, it would seem they don’t have much in common. He’s Generation Z and she’s a Baby Boomer. He works in Alabama. She works in Florida. But the one thing they have in common—other than Auburn—is that they’re both mayors of small towns. Brought together for the first time, Jean Miller Hood ’70, the mayor of Cinco Bayou, Fla., and Messiah Williams-Cole ’21, the mayor of Camp Hill, Ala., spoke about how civic service changed their lives.
“I was retired as an educator, had joined the town council and had always been interested in government. How decisions made by the federal, state and even the local government impacted your classroom. So, I was very aware of the importance of having representation and people who were committed to good local government.”
A small town completely surrounded by the city of Fort Walton Beach, Cinco Bayou has 419 residents inside a half-mile territory that also fits four parks and the busiest boat launch in Okaloosa County on its namesake bayou.
When the previous mayor of Cinco Bayou stepped down in 2014, Hood became interim mayor before winning election to consecutive two-year terms in 2016, 2018 and 2020. With new term limits expanded to four years, she will serve as mayor until 2024. “People must think I’ve done a decent job at it, because I’m starting my seventh year,” she said.
“My reason is similar to Miss Jean’s. I applied for the town council when it was vacant, didn’t get it, and that pushed me to look further into how municipalities are run. To have the impact that I wanted, I thought it would take me becoming the mayor, because we suffered from poor leadership at the top.”
The census says 900 residents, but you would think it was 400, said Williams-Cole, a Camp Hill native. Despite having a low tax base with few local jobs, it is a proud community whose residents live where they work. You can tell which employees are working by whose car is in the parking lot.
Elected mayor in his senior year at Auburn, Williams-Cole will remain in the area while earning a law school degree, giving him plenty of time to fulfill his vision for the small community. But he began his first term at an incredible disadvantage, overcoming what he calls “20 to 30 years of poor leadership.”
“My first four months were spent paying debts to people we owed, just to earn their confidence and respect. That’s breaking the mold of how things used to be. Municipalities are really creatures of habit—if a town does something wrong for so long, people begin to believe that it’s the right way.”
In one early instance, Williams-Cole terminated the Camp Hill fire chief for not providing a list of donations or details of the fire department’s expenses. The town also hadn’t contributed to the state police retirement fund since 1994, he said, causing police officers to leave the area once their contracts were up.
“In only his second week on the job, he personally drove the backhoe used to fill in a pothole on one of the town’s main roads.”
Inspiring confidence in their communities is an obstacle both have encountered. Whether it’s overcoming gross mismanagement by previous administrations—Camp Hill hadn’t had a city budget since 1992 until Williams-Cole took over—or overcoming bureaucratic negligence, it has been challenging to reach an ideal state of government.
“I was amazed—and I’m still amazed—at the amount of government red tape, for lack of a better word. All the roadblocks in your way when you try to achieve something. How much paperwork is involved that has absolutely nothing to do with it. People have a totally different view of government when [they know] it is directly responsible to [them].”
Hood’s email, phone number and address are published on Cinco Bayou’s government website so people can contact her directly, but that hasn’t stopped them from approaching her in parking lots or while grocery shopping.
A blocked delivery lane, or a low-hanging tree branch—each time, she’s prioritized their problems and solved them. “You don’t fill out a form, you don’t ask for somebody’s permission. Report a problem, and if there’s any way that we can just go out and solve it, we do,” said Hood.
Williams-Cole credits Auburn with exposing him to new ideas and different beliefs, helping him find common ground with Camp Hill’s residents. But it hasn’t been easy. Whether it’s differences of opinion, reluctance to cooperate or sheer recalcitrance, he’s had to earn residents’ trust. Sometimes, it’s by getting his hands dirty. In only his second week on the job, he personally drove the backhoe used to fill in a pothole on one of the town’s main roads.
Inspired by President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats,” Williams-Cole started hosting monthly “Camp Hill Conversations” on Facebook Live where residents can ask him questions in real time.
“A blocked delivery lane, or a low-hanging tree branch—each time, she’s prioritized their problems and solved them. ‘You don’t fill out a form, you don’t ask for somebody’s permission. Report a problem, and if there’s any way that we can just go out and solve it, we do.”
“Last week someone asked me, ‘Can I purchase a cemetery plot at town hall?’ and I was like, ‘No, you can’t, but we’ll put you in touch with where you can.’ People honestly don’t know [to ask] until the opportunity arises. Opening up the air for questions really helps me.”
For small towns, budgets are critically important. Camp Hill won’t be able to apply for grant money until they complete three consecutive annual audits (the last one was completed in 1992), but, like Cinco Bayou, it was eligible for emergency funding through the nationwide Cares Act passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though Williams-Cole has only been able to apply Cares Act funding to the police and fire departments, Hood has used the additional funding to fix some longstanding issues that plague her community.
Asked how they would spend a million dollars in their community, both agreed that utilities and infrastructure would come first.
Cinco Bayou borders the Gulf of Mexico, making hurricane season especially precarious, particularly with aging underground pipes that could collapse in heavy stormwater. Hood hopes that, someday, they could repair their storm drains and put their power lines underground to protect them, but recognizes it would take “an immense amount of money.”
“If I had a million dollars, $500,000 I would use to repair every pothole in the town—we’ve been having to go the cheap way by doing coal patches. Beyond that, I think the other $500,000 would be toward building something that would be symbolic for the town, like a rec center. Everything that we have—a track, a pavilion and playgrounds—is outside now, and our residents have to drive at least 10-15 minutes away to [exercise].”
Unsurprisingly, both Hood and Williams-Cole have visions for the long-term futures of their towns. Hood won’t seek reelection after her term ends in 2024, but she hopes her mayor pro tem will be elected after and will continue their shared passion for civic engagement. She still plans to participate on committees and continue working to remedy local needs.
“For me personally, I want to kind of set up a voters league or some type of organization so that we can groom leaders for our community, especially older leaders. One thing we do a terrible job at in Camp Hill is that a lot of people go off [hearsay] rather than facts. I try to keep my community
informed, so if they have any questions, they can come to me or the council.
But one thing about me, I want a family—I mean I’m young, but I’m not good enough to propose to my girlfriend yet. At the end of this [mayoral] term I’ll have my [Juris Doctor], so I think I’ll be good enough then, in my eyes, to at least pop the question. I don’t know if I’ll run for another term, but I do want us to be at a place where whoever comes after me, they won’t have to go backward—it’s only building for the future.”
“I want to encourage you. You’re young, you’re starting out in an exciting career, you want to have a family—[but] at some point, you’ll face retirement and you will have time, wherever you are—big city or small city—to get back into government. You will have a huge body of experience behind you, plus knowing what you’ve faced here in your first term as mayor. Hopefully, later on in life, you will find an opportunity where you can serve again, and who knows—you may be mayor of a huge municipality and think back to the good old days, when you were just worried about paying off the police pension fund.”