The U.S. District Court audience saw the gamut of Judge Henry Wingate’s moods over a two-day status conference updating him on the latest with Jackson’s water system.
The tedious proceedings covered a wide range of issues Wingate sought answers to, including water quality and public engagement.
Wingate initially called the conference after City Attorney Catoria Martin relayed in previous meetings that members of the public were concerned with how the system has been handled in the seven months since third-party manager Ted Henifin assumed control of Jackson’s water utility.
At times, the Jackson-native judge was affable, sharing memories of marching with Medgar Evers and serving on a board at Tougaloo College. Other times, he was less patient. Wingate called out Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba multiple times, including over having side conversations and for using his cellphone during proceedings, despite others having their phones out as well.
Advocates and community members, as they told the court, are specifically frustrated over how little communication there’s been between Henifin’s company, JXN Water, and the public about how money has been spent, how contract work has been decided, and Henifin’s persistent statements that the water is safe to drink despite residents seeing discolored and odorous water from their taps.
Rukia Lumumba, co-founder of the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition — as well as Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s sister — requested Wingate allow a community ambassador to engage with the court and Jackson water in future decision-making.
“We’re too often only considered after decisions have been made,” she said about public involvement.
Rukia Lumumba, who also is a candidate for House District 72 in Hinds and Madison counties, requested that Wingate make JXN Water subject to public record laws. Despite having control of a public utility and spending government dollars, JXN Water is a non-government entity and has broad authority under Wingate’s order last year. The company isn’t subject to public record or contract procurement laws.
Danyelle Holmes, National Social Justice organizer with the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, asked Wingate to release all contracts, salaries and resumes of companies JXN Water has hired thus far.
With a small staff of just five employees, Henifin said his plan is to rely heavily on contracting to carry out the water system rehabilitation.
Based on press releases and events, JXN Water has publicized at least three contracts it’s executed: one with Stantec to repair water line leaks, one with a call center in Rankin County to create a 24/7 helpline, and another with Jacobs Engineering to staff the water treatment plants.
Otherwise, JXN Water has put out little information about its contracts, such as what bids they’ve received, exact terms of the contracts and other details that a government entity would have to share with taxpayers.
Residents also told Wingate they were disappointed that Henifin hired out-of-state companies for contracts and didn’t establish a call center in Jackson. Henifin responded that his priority is to work with qualified companies who can help immediately. He added that he’s worked with local firms whenever possible and will continue to seek work from Black-owned businesses.
Wingate and Henifin continually pointed to the progress that’s been made in a short period: nearly 200 water leak repairs, 90 valves closed and normal water pressure for almost every home. Henifin said some homes in south Jackson still have pressure issues because of their distance from the treatment plant, and that he’s planning to eventually put those homes on the city’s well system.
After last month’s status conference when Henifin repeated that the water is safe to drink, residents expressed skepticism to the media and in social media posts, showing images of brown water from their taps.
Color and odor are what Henifin called “secondary” standards, meaning they don’t indicate the water is unsafe to drink. But as Rukia Lumumba told the court Thursday, residents might not know that, and she suggested holding educational sessions to explain the city’s water testing and why it’s safe despite appearances.
“If I’m looking at brown water, I wouldn’t think it’s safe,” Holmes said in her testimony.
Wingate responded that he wouldn’t want to drink that water either.
Holmes also argued that, just because water is safe leaving the plant, it doesn’t mean that the water is safe at people’s homes, where aging pipes are more likely to carry lead. In response, Wingate questioned who should be responsible for fixing pipes on private property. Later in the hearing, Martin, the city’s attorney, said that, while the city couldn’t spend its own money to fix pipes on private property, there are federal programs that make such funding available, including $15 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
‘We still have much room for improvement‘
Speakers during the status conference emphasized they wanted Jacksonians to have more involvement in Henifin’s decision-making, and that they felt let down with how little public engagement there’s been from JXN Water in recent months.
Brooke Floyd, director of the JXN People’s Assembly, said she lost pressure or water completely three times in the last month and a half at her northeast Jackson home. She wondered why she hadn’t received a boil water notice, which she’d typically finds on the state Department of Health’s website.
Henifin has tried to overhaul the way the city issues boil water notices. In the past, he explained, the city could only test water pressure from its treatment plants and couldn’t narrow down which parts of Jackson actually needed to boil their water.
Despite establishing a new 24/7 call center — which residents can reach at (601) 500-5200 — Henifin admitted “we still have much room for improvement with communications.” He also said in a press release that JXN Water has a “blind spot” in keeping Latino residents informed.