Danyelle Holmes, of the Mississippi Poor People's Campaign, far right, speaks during a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition press conference about Jackson's water issues at the Mississippi E-Center at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

A group of Jackson community leaders on Wednesday panned the federally appointed manager of the city’s water system over a number of issues, including a lack of collaboration and transparency, the firing of an employee and awarding a large contract to an out-of-town business.

The Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, which has led water distribution efforts and rallies during the peaks of the Jackson water crisis, spoke to the media on Wednesday after meeting with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice. In November, those two agencies agreed to a federal order with the city of Jackson that put a third-party manager, Ted Henifin, in control of rehabbing the drinking water system.

The EPA and DOJ are in Jackson this week meeting with residents, and asking both in person and through an online survey for input on the future of the water system. (Jacksonians interested in participating can access the survey at this link).

At the Wednesday meeting, the coalition asked the two federal agencies for more inclusion in the future decision-making process around the water system moving forward. As the coalition said to reporters after the meeting, there hasn’t been enough collaboration between Henifin and community members thus far.

Danyelle Holmes, of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, center, speaks during a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition press conference about Jackson’s water issues at the Mississippi E-Center at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

“There has been no collaboration as it relates to the overall process,” Danyelle Holmes, a member of the coalition and National Social Justice Organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign, said, adding that residents haven’t been getting boil water notices during outages. “There’s no transparency, or accountability at all. We have not had meetings with (Henifin)… the collaboration has fallen short with the coalition.”

Under the federal order that put Henifin in charge, there’s little oversight over the manager’s role other than that of the U.S. judge who appointed him. As a non-public entity, Henifin’s organization, JXN Water, is not subject to public records laws, and it also can avoid state and local statutes around procuring contracts with public dollars. The order also allows Henifin to make changes, such as to the water billing system, without the approval of elected Jackson officials.

Henifin has repeatedly stated his commitment to being transparent, and said he wants the approval of Jacksonians before he makes changes to the billing system or recommends a new structure for future governance. In an interview with Mississippi Today, he talked about earning the trust of residents, and how he hopes that will start to take shape once they see improvements.

Jackson water manager Ted Henifin, discusses the current state of the city’s water issues and plans for the future, Monday, March 6, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Henifin, who has appeared at several town hall events since his appointment, said his next step in making long-term changes to the water system is holding community engagement sessions, although JXN Water has not put out details for when those will be.

Coalition members said they were disappointed in how the federal takeover has played out so far in terms of working with the community. They were also frustrated with specific decisions Henifin has made so far, such as awarding a large operations and maintenance contract to Texas-based Jacobs Solutions.

Henifin announced last month the six-month contract, which will pay Jacobs $2 million a month to run the city’s water treatment plants and train local operators for long-term staffing.

“We have great pause when we bring in firms like Jacobs and pay them $2 million a month and we don’t pay our local firms anything in sight of that,” said Socrates Garrett, a Jackson businessman whose firm contracts engineering services. “We think that you could’ve had hired a minority firm as the primary contractor and let Jacobs be the (sub-contractor).”

Henifin told Mississippi Today that he expects to extend Jacobs’ contract between five to 10 years, adding that he also expects the extension to come at a cheaper monthly rate.

Holmes also alleged that Henifin “wrongfully” fired the one Black employee of JXN Water, Chief Experience Officer Tariq Abdul-Tawwab, last week. Abdul-Tawwab was brought on to improve the customer service experience for Jackson water customers, who for years have experienced unreliable billing and long wait times to reach anyone at the city’s water department.

While the company recently removed Abdul-Tawwab from its website, Henifin said in a statement yesterday that “it is not our policy” to comment on personnel decisions. Neither Henifin nor JXN Water responded to requests for comment in response to the coalition’s other criticisms.

Both Holmes and Garrett talked about the importance of JXN Water and its contractors reflecting the 83% Black capital city.

Claims about Abdul-Tawwab’s position with JXN Water comes just after a debt relief program he was helping to publicize made local news over questions of how the program was being funded.

Last week, after the city announced new federal funding that would relieve residents’ water bill debts, WLBT reported that Jackson hadn’t actually received all the federal funds that JXN Water thought it would to fund program. The city then, using another program, had to write off most of the debt it was relieving residents of, rather than paying the debt off, the story reported.

Despite Henifin later clarifying the confusion in a public statement, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba on Monday said he believed Henifin made a mistake in communicating details of the program, adding that it was done in good faith.

Makani Themba speaks during a Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition press conference about Jackson’s water issues at the Mississippi E-Center at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, March 22, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

In the WLBT story, Henifin said he thought some of the confusion around funding amounts came from “his staff.” Abdul-Tawwab spoke at multiple public events to brief residents about the debt relief program. Other than those two, JXN Water has only had one other employee, Chief Operating Officer Jordan Hillman, according to its website.

In his statement Wednesday, Henifin added:

“We’ll continue our work improving the customer service experience and hope to maintain a relationship with the community organizations that helped introduce us to the Jackson community. We’re hopeful that all the community partners stay at the table and continue to hold us accountable to the people of Jackson.”

At its meeting with federal officials Wednesday, the coalition also presented a petition, which it says has over 6,000 signatures, asking the EPA to protect Jackson from a privatized water system, as well to provide water filters to ensure clean water for residents.

Questions over the future management of the water system emerged this legislative session when lawmakers tried, and failed, to create a state-controlled regional authority to oversee the system. Henifin, who opposed the bill, favors putting the system’s control under a nonprofit led by a board of constituents.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to correct that JXN Water is a company, not a nonprofit, as the original story reported.

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Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.