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Tiny Missouri Town Plagued By Resignations After Electing First Black Mayor

Things are different in tiny Parma, Missouri, now that there's a new mayor in town — but not in the way recently elected Tyus Byrd expected.
/ Source: NBC News

The first-ever black mayor of a sleepy Missouri town doesn't believe the abrupt resignation of several top officials and officers was a racially motivated move.

Their exodus catapulted Parma — population 700 — into the national spotlight over questions about whether the historic win of Tyus Byrd, a black female candidate, played a part.

Byrd, who was officially sworn in as mayor one week ago, told NBC News on Tuesday that she thought she had a good relationship with the six municipal employees who suddenly stepped down with no warning.

"I've never come across any racial problem here in Parma," said Byrd, 40, a former city clerk. "I've never encountered (it) here in Parma with myself of any other city official."

Byrd defeated incumbent Mayor Randall Ramsey, who is white, earlier this month in a vote of 122 to 84.

The town is about 67 percent white and 30 percent black, according to 2010 census figures.

Six of the 11 municipal employees who decided to quit include the Parma police chief, city clerk and the water department supervisor. None offered letters of resignation, Byrd said.

Ex-Police Chief Trish Cohen told NBC News that her resignation — and the resignation of her three fellow officers — had nothing to do with race. She said there was a clash of personalities between her and the incoming mayor, and that the story has been blown out of proportion.

Another officer resigned to take care of an elderly parent who is ill, Cohen added.

Byrd said "safety issues" were cited as possible reasons for the employees' departures, but she never had a chance to sit down and come to an understanding.

Byrd said that while she was campaigning, residents complained they didn't have a good rapport with city officials. "A lot of them felt as though they were being harassed by police," Byrd said. "A lot of them felt as though their voice wasn’t being heard."

Despite the wild speculation online that race was a factor in the resignations, some in Parma told NBC News the incident is more reflective of a changing-of-the-guard attitude in a city that's struggling to stay afloat economically.

Ramsey was first elected in 1962 and served for 12 years. He ran again in 1991, and served for another 24 years, presiding over a rural area that's home to convenience stores, a cotton gin and not much else.

The former mayor told NBC News that an incident about two weeks before the election in which a white Parma police officer used a Taser on a black teen could have had some effect on city officials' decision to depart. A protest was held in front of the police station, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

But Ramsey also said he doesn't believe the employees' defection from Parma is related to race. Byrd, he added, should have made more of an effort to speak with those employees — a necessary move for any politician in a new situation.

"She should have talked to them and to see what their wishes were and what they wanted to do," Ramsey said. "I always supported them very strongly in their jobs and worked closely with them. Maybe they felt like they weren’t going to have that same support."

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— Charles Hadlock, Elizabeth Chuck and Erik Ortiz