Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba on Monday lambasted state lawmakers’ ongoing attempts to strong-arm city leadership through legislation that would remove local control over judicial and drinking water systems.
In the current legislative session, lawmakers have introduced the following bills:
- HB 1020, which would create a new court to oversee cases within Jackson’s Capital Complex Improvement District with judges appointed by the state Supreme Court and prosecutors appointed by the state attorney general.
- HB 696, which would expand the boundaries of the district.
- SB 2889, which would put the long-term control of Jackson’s drinking water system under a board mostly appointed by the governor and lieutenant governor.
- SB 2338, which would prevent cities from charging for water based on property value, a plan Jackson’s new third-party manager is proposing as a way to lower the cost burden on poorer residents.
The mayor spoke to the pattern of recent attempts to remove control over issues in Jackson from the 83% Black, majority Democrat city, and put it in the hands of state leaders; all of Mississippi’s statewide elected officials are white Republicans.
“It reminds me of apartheid,” Lumumba said Monday. “They are looking to colonize Jackson, not only in terms of them putting their military force over Jackson, but also dictating who has province over decision-making.
“They put this military force over us, and we’re just supposed to pay taxes to the king.”
Lumumba also called out HB 370, which would allow voters to recall municipal elected officials. Critics of the bill argue it was aimed at removing Jackson leadership, although the bill’s author, Rep. Shanda Yates, said she didn’t introduce it with the city in mind.
The mayor has frequently criticized the role of state leaders over the past year. Last April, Lumumba called the Legislature “paternalistic” and “racist” after a dispute over the appropriation of federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. In their handling of the funds, lawmakers attached extra oversight over Jackson’s spending of infrastructure money that wasn’t required for other cities in the state.
Last fall, after a combination of flooding and broken pumps shut down the capital city’s drinking water system, Gov. Tate Reeves announced that the state was taking over Jackson’s water operations. After both initially said that the city and state were working together, Reeves and Lumumba spent weeks launching public attacks against each other.
Following the U.S. Department of Justice’s November order to put the water system into the hands of a third-party manager, Reeves said it was “excellent news” that Lumumba would no longer have authority over the utility.
The federal government recently appropriated $600 million to directly assist Jackson’s water system; that money is part of a total $814 million in federal funds that will go towards the city’s water and sewer projects.
Lumumba said Monday there has never been an investment like this before, referencing that Flint received $100 million in federal funds to aid its lead crisis. He said Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann expressed doubts that Jackson could secure such funding without the state’s help.
“(Hosemann) said that I needed to look at a possible relationship with the state, because what did I think, Biden was going to write me a check?” Lumumba said. “I recently told (Hosemann): ‘I do, and he did it.'”
Mayor hasn’t seen proposal yet, appointing new public works director
Asked about last week’s proposal from the city’s new water manager, Ted Henifin, Lumumba said he hasn’t yet reviewed the plan, and couldn’t speak to specific ideas in the plan, such as charging customers based on property values or creating a nonprofit to govern the system long term.
Lumumba did say the city was getting ready to announce a new interim public works director; the previous interim director, Jordan Hillman, is now working for Henifin’s organization, JXN Water.
The mayor said the city is hiring a recruiting firm to find a permanent director, and added that the new director will no longer be handling the city’s drinking water.
Asked if management of the drinking water system would remain with a separate entity long-term, Lumumba said “it’s too early to say.”
“I will say my interest is not just to run (the water system) and operate it for the sake of running and operating it,” the mayor said.
Lumumba will host a town hall to discuss the latest around federal funding and Henifin’s role on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Forest Hill High School.