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Mulberry’s three mayors: working as a team for its residents

<p><strong></strong>photo by TANIAH TUDOR</p><p>Mulberry Mayor Gary Baxter (left) sits with his assistant, Monica Freeland, previously the mayor of Tillar in southeast Arkansas, and Mulberry Fire Chief Jeff Marvin, a former Mulberry mayor.</p>


Mulberry Mayor Gary Baxter (left) sits with his assistant, Monica Freeland, previously the mayor of Tillar in southeast Arkansas, and Mulberry Fire Chief Jeff Marvin, a former Mulberry mayor.

It is not every city that has three mayors working together daily to improve life for its residents, but Mulberry can make such a boast.

Working alongside its current mayor, Gary Baxter, are Fire Chief and former Mulberry mayor Jeff Marvin and the mayor’s new assistant, Monica Freeland, who was previously the mayor of Tillar in southeast Arkansas.

Having the two former mayors on his team has been advantageous, Baxter said.

“We can make good, wise decisions by putting all of our heads together,” Baxter said.

Both Marvin and Freeland are Mulberry natives. Marvin’s family goes back in the area at least six generations, he said, while Freeland is the granddaughter of the former Dr. Odell J. Kirksey - still a well-known figure in the area.

Though Freeland moved away after high school, Marvin stayed and has been involved in almost every aspect of community life.

Besides his previous 20-year involvement in the fire department as a volunteer firefighter and deputy fire chief, Marvin spent eight years with the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department. He retired in 2013 because of back surgery.

“I’ve really just been involved with the community ever since I was young,” Marvin said. “One of my first summer jobs was working for the city cutting grass.”

Marvin has or has had a toe in nearly every “board” in Mulberry, including the school board, little league, Lions Club, fair board and the Crawford-Sebastian Community Development Board.

“I’ve always enjoyed local government. I was always the kid asking how this works or why this works,” Marvin said. “I still ask why a lot of the time.”

As mayor from 1999-2005, Marvin helped to build infrastructure in Mulberry. Two additional fire stations, the public library, the public works office and shop, and the water treatment plant - which is designed for expansion, were built under his leadership.

This work, and the work of other mayors, was necessary and created the foundation upon which Baxter has been able to build, he said.

“It’s so important in public service that we look out way past our lifetime,” Baxter said.

Marvin now operates as a resource in the budgeting process and how certain monies can be utilized, Baxter said. Freeland also is an invaluable resource, he said, particularly when it comes to grant writing and funding current projects.

“Monica just came on board, and already I draw on her knowledge,” Baxter said.

Freeland took over as mayor’s assistant at the beginning of February. She, like Marvin, was born and raised in Mulberry, a member of the Kirksey family.

“I was brought up with a history of community service,” Freeland said.

After moving from the area, Freeland developed experience in both agriculture and finance. She managed the trust department for a bank, was the executive director for the Delta Area Community Foundation and is a commissioner on the Arkansas Real Estate Commission.

Both her father and husband have held long tenures on the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board, a boon for the City of Mulberry, which is making an effort to style itself as the “edamame capital of the world.”

Freeland was elected as mayor of Tillar for a term to begin in 2011, but became mayor much sooner when the then-mayor died four days after the election, she said.

After her third year, Freeland resigned when her husband Thad retired. They decided to move back to Mulberry to be close to her family, she said.

“When she came back it was the perfect opportunity for her to stay involved in city government, because of all the experience she has,” Baxter said.

For her, it is important for leaders to be secure in their position and make sure those around them have the necessary knowledge to continue their work if they are unable, Freeland said.

“I feel…that is how this government [in Mulberry] is operating presently and that’s what brings on the cohesiveness,” Freeland said.

All three said they work well together as a team.

“We’re not going to agree 100 percent of the time, but we’re going to talk about it and come up with a solution,” Marvin said.

Freeland agreed, and added, “If you agree 100 percent of the time, you’re not going to get anywhere.”