Jackson mayor blames City Council for consent decree delays

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City of Jackson

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber at his 2016 State of the City address.

If the city of Jackson misses a key deadline for its consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it will be the city council’s fault — at least according to Mayor Tony Yarber.

In a letter obtained by Mississippi Today dated Oct. 6, Yarber told EPA southeast regional Administrator Heather McTeer Toney that the Jackson City Council is “interfering with and jeopardizing the City’s ability to continue in compliance with the Consent Decree.”

In November 2012, Jackson entered into the consent decree, which is a legal settlement, with the EPA and Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality for violating the federal Clean Water Act. According to the EPA, the alleged violations included 2,300 unlawful sewer  discharges into the Pearl River, totaling 2.8 billion gallons of minimally treated sewage into the Pearl River.

The consent decree requires Jackson to make significant upgrades to its sewer system as well as pay a $437,916 civil penalty and other fines if certain timetables are not met. Recent months have seen Yarber and members of the city council at loggerheads over the appointment of a program manager to oversee the consent decree work.

The Clarion-Ledger reported in March that a main point of contention centers on the company Yarber’s administration selected for the program manager job. The city council took no action on the approval of a $2.6 million a year contract with AECOM Technical Services Inc. in part because of questions surrounding the involvement of several principals associated with the company, according to The Clarion-Ledger. These included a member of the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, who was charged with Medicaid fraud in June.

The Jackson City Council. From left: Melvin Priester Jr., Ashby Foote, De'Keither Stamps, Tyrone Hendrix, Margaret Barrett-Simon, Kenneth Stokes and Charles Tillman.

The Jackson City Council. From left: Melvin Priester Jr., Ashby Foote, De’Keither Stamps, Tyrone Hendrix, Margaret Barrett-Simon, Kenneth Stokes and Charles Tillman.

Yarber cites the impasse in his letter to Toney, who was formerly the mayor of Greenville. Beginning in 2015, Yarber said, his administration began laying the foundation for hiring a consent-decree program manager.

On June 6, the city council’s Rules Committee declined to consider the hiring of AECOM.

Yarber asked the council to reconsider the following week, on June 14, but pulled it off the agenda when it became clear he didn’t have the votes.

When Yarber again asked the council to consider the contract in October, it failed in committee.

“The failure of the City Council to act is hamstringing the Department of Public Works to comply with and implement the Consent Decree,” Yarber writes.

Specifically, Yarber said the lack of a program manager would impede the submission of a report that includes a computerized digital map of the sewer system, hydraulic modeling and a plan to organize the city’s sewers into groups.

Ward 4 Councilman De’Keither Stamps said it’s the city council’s prerogative to vote in the best interests of the taxpayers.

Stamps said he had misgivings about switching program managers — the previous program-management firm was joint-venture AJA/Waggoner — and favors asking the EPA to amend the agreement.

“The (Yarber) administration has many options on how to proceed. Me, personally, I think we should move toward renegotiating the consent decree. We shouldn’t be agreeing to pay $800 million in work if you have no way to pay for it,” Stamps said.

The city can be charged up to $2,000 per day for failing to submit the report, according to consent-decree documents.

Elsewhere in Mississippi the cities of Vicksburg, Meridian, Greenville, Hattiesburg and Starkville are also under consent decrees. WDAM-TV reported that Hattiesburg had racked up $163,500 — $1,500 per day — in fines for missing a May 1 construction deadline.