The 2009 JFP Interview With Harvey Johnson Jr.

Photo by Kenya Hudson

Harvey Johnson Jr. became Jackson's first black mayor after winning the 1997 election with about 70 percent of the vote. He successfully ran against former Mayor Kane Ditto in the primary, then went on to trounce Republican Charlotte Reeves in the general election that year.

Johnson showed talent in slurping as much federal money as possible out of Washington, and filled the city's grant division with managers who brought in funding that contributed heavily to the city's police department and development budgets.

His penchant for thoroughness earned him a reputation for taking too long to act on his plans—a character trait that perhaps drove supporters to the frenetic personality of his opponent Frank Melton, whom some local media perceived as a go-getter.

Still, Johnson's progress, however unhurried, amounted to progress, and he requested that the Jackson Free Press conduct this interview in the ground floor lobby of the Jackson Convention Complex—one of the projects for which he exudes considerable pride.

The former mayor's sense of competition with Hinds County and the surrounding bedroom communities was also obvious. Johnson refuses to publicly label the emerging suburbs as enemies, although the relationship obviously has a fair bit of strain. The bedroom communities have been siphoning off the city's population for decades, and now Johnson hopes to run a city that has likely lost thousands of residents since he last occupied the mayor's office.

Wow, where to start. First, why would you want to be mayor again?
I thought long and hard about that and really came to the decision through consultation with family and friends and a lot of prayer. I really believe that, among the candidates running, I'm the best prepared through my experience. I have the integrity and judgment and know-how to govern the city of Jackson. Public service has been my professional career as long as I've been in a profession, so this is an opportunity to ask the citizens of Jackson to allow me another opportunity to serve them.

But don't you feel like the city rejected you for a man who essentially amounts to an empty showman? I don't want to put words in your mouth, but that can't possibly do anything for one's esteem.
I think voters make decisions based on what they feel is good information, and I can't question that. All I can do is try to meet the challenge of winning the voters over again in the city. I can't dwell on the last race except to learn from the things that transpired from it.

Could you say you make a comfortable income at JSU?
I'd say it was comfortable.

What keeps you from saying, "To heck with you all—I'm staying in private life where I still stand to make decent money, and I don't have to deal with the press or the election cycle"?
It's about the willingness to serve the city of Jackson.

Were there any developments that made you just grimace and say, "Eww, I'd have done that differently now"?
A reporter posed a similar question to me when I first left office: Would I have done anything differently? I said at the time that I would have done the same thing all over again, but after having stepped back from that experience, clearly there were some things that I did that I would have done differently. You can call them mistakes, shortcomings or missteps, but the issue is that I've learned from those things, and I'd be a better mayor once elected.

What were the missteps, mistakes or shortcomings?
There are no specific things, but there are general things dealing with accountability—Making sure government is accountable all the way up and down the line, not just in the mayor's office or with department heads but all the way up and down the line. There are some things that I've learned both in and out of office that I'm ready and willing to put to practice as we move forward.

What's your opinion of the press? My impression during your final days was that you felt reporters had a habit of misconstruing your message. Remember your insistence at the end of your term of recording interviews for public record?
One of those things that I have learned deals with the area of communications. We're going to have to communicate with the public more effectively. We actually had ward meetings for six years, every month, throughout the city of Jackson, but if you talk to people, they still feel that my communication effort was not effective.

But you had your brown-bag meetings every week, and reporters stopped coming.
The point of that is that we'll have to establish a better way of communicating if we're going to communicate the message more effectively.

How do you do that?
First of all, by being very candid about the need to improve the relationship. It's clearly a two-way street. Not only do we want to make sure that we're doing what's right from a government standpoint by making ourselves accountable, but we want to make sure that we're doing everything we can to help the media carry out its responsibility as well.

But you held meetings, and we didn't show. What more can you do besides camp outside the front door of The Clarion-Ledger and grab reporters as they walk in?
Maybe our home court wasn't the best place. Maybe we need to camp out, in a sense, not only in front of their front door but outside the doors of every news outlet in the city. We have to be more aggressive.

Are you ready to admit, though, that the media may have been hostile to you?
You'd have to ask the media. Perception is reality. Maybe the media felt that somehow I wasn't as transparent as I needed to be, though I can't be for sure. In terms of the hostility, I'm prepared to make sure that we have a cordial working relationship. I'm willing to do my part, and I have to hope that the media is prepared, too.

You'll need at least 10 PR people.
I don't think we can afford 10 PR people, but I think a good relationship is doable.

Was there an issue with adhering to the return time on information requests?
We tried to provide information readily if it was an urgent matter, but sometimes you get requests for transcripts that may require copying, that would require all of the allotted time to return information.

Would you be willing to let reporters speak directly to department heads, or do they need to go through the city's public relations department?
We created a public information office to make sure that information got expeditiously to the media.

Your administration organized the first city PR department?
There were individual PR people, but we sort of consolidated them to a single department. We'll have to see if that model continues to work or (if) we need to go to another model, but there has to be a connection between the media and the mayor's office.

Are there any particular projects that have been in limbo that you're itching to get back to?
This whole notion of economic development in West and South Jackson is critical. We held a (March 5) news conference at a plaza that offers great opportunity for new retail outlets and restaurants in that part of Jackson, but access is a problem. I'm anxious to get back to creating economic opportunity in those parts of the city that have not experienced that type of activity recently, like in Westland Plaza on Ellis Avenue. Now we have a new Walgreen's there and a completely new look for Westland Plaza, but that required partnering with developers and a little investment on the part of the city.

How much did state financing play a role in that?
That particular project didn't require anything from the state. Some projects do, but that one didn't. It was limited to a partnership between the city and the developer. In fact, that project was featured in the International Council of Shopping Centers' magazine as testament to public-private partnerships.

Let's talk about crime. I don't think some things in the police department have changed since you left. Police still say they're underfunded and promotions aren't happening fast enough. Citizens say there still aren't enough cops. All of this sounds like money issues. Does it begin and end with money?
There are a number of ways to deal with crime. Crime prevention is very important, and the Crime Prevention Unit was done away with (by Mayor Melton).

At a recent forum, the candidates made the return of the Crime Prevention Unit sound like an end-all to the city's crime problem. Is there more that you'd like to add to that, that you didn't have time to say last Saturday?
Some of my opponents say it should be reinstituted. I agree, but that's not a silver bullet. We need to make sure that we keep and retain our police officers. Yeah, it's a matter of pay, but it's also a matter of promotions. We need a career-development plan and system in the police department. We were on the verge of getting that when I left office, where officers would know what their particular career ladder would be, whether they would be in the patrol or the detective division.

There are also economic issues to address. We have to make sure people are working in the city. We need to have jobs for Jacksonians. We were successful in getting a number of projects going in the city. In fact, a lot of the things that you see happening now around town were started during my administration. We're sitting in the Jackson Convention Complex, and that seed was planted during my administration. The whole notion behind these projects was not just to have facilities but to put people to work.

The Danks or Ditto administrations never touched on the idea of a convention center?
I'm sure the idea has been around a long time, with Jackson being the capital city. It obviously needed a convention center, but the seed was planted during my administration in terms of working with the county delegation and the city council in getting legislation passed, and working with other mayors around the metro area to get the authorization passed, and then working with the business community to get the referendum passed for the financing.

This was not an easy fight as I recall.
And it was a long fight. I'd actually started the thing by locating the (Mississippi Telcom Center) downtown, because if we had not located it downtown it would have been a harder sell to get the convention center down here. I remember when I first came into office, there was a push to locate the telecommunication center out on Lakeland Drive, or Briarwood Drive, or down at the fairgrounds, and I fought for four hard years to get it where it is now. Then the next step was to get the convention center going.

I don't know if the bill is dead, yet, but some legislators are pushing a bill to authorize the construction of a new state crime lab, though the bill leaves the option open to build it outside Jackson. How would you go about making sure it gets built inside the city?
The city of Jackson has always been a gracious host to state government, and we would push to continue that. We have a lot of important functions here. The Legislature is here; the governor's mansion is here; a number of state departments are here. It would make sense to have the crime lab here, but it also makes sense to look at what these buildings are costing the city in terms of revenue.

Some of the properties in which state facilities are located are prime real estate, but the city of Jackson does not realize any tax revenue. That's roughly 30 percent of our property that isn't taxable. In other states, the state government simply provides a payment in lieu of taxes to that jurisdiction. It happens in 30-something capitals throughout the country. We need to bring these facilities in, but we also need to work on how we can offset their presence.

The Legislature hasn't been very generous to the city, though. Do you realistically see that changing?
I hear that, but at the same time I could point to the re-authorization of the Convention and Visitors Bureau as one of the things we've worked very closely with the Legislature on. Quite frankly, that was a very bumpy road. Of course, this convention center legislation is another example. We still have a very diverse legislative delegation, and we required every member of the Hinds County delegation to support the endeavor, whether or not that delegate had any constituents located inside the city of Jackson.

What, even (Raymond Rep.) Jim Ellington? He hated the idea of the convention center.
But he eventually supported it. We were able to get that done. Our projects and goals have to be done on a case-by-case basis. We've worked with the Legislature before, and we'll work with them again.

But the convention center vote gave the city the option to tax itself. It was no skin off the state's as—uh, off the state.
I don't think PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) will ever become a reality unless someone takes it on as a charge. I think we have to look at what's happening in other states and the reality of the drain on the city of Jackson by the high amount of non-taxable property. I don't know if it will ever become a reality, but you have to keep it on people's radar screen. You can't just sweep it under the rug. Eight-hundred-pound gorillas like that don't go under rugs easily.

Are there any tax options available to the city to get revenue from commuters that does not require legislative approval?
No, our charter for local government in Mississippi requires the Legislature to sign off on any kind of revenue matter, so no jurisdiction can unilaterally impose a new tax on residents without legislative approval. But the cities of Hattiesburg, Starkville and Oxford receive from their prospective universities in those municipalities a fire fee. When I discovered this, I looked at the city's two institutions of higher learning—Jackson State and the University Medical Center—and thought about how to work out a similar arrangement here.

We didn't get a lot of traction in the Legislature, but I was able to work out an arrangement with the vice chancellor where UMC would provide $200,000 a year to Jackson to help offset the cost of fire services to UMC.

Pity that's past tense. (Melton ended the UMC payments in 2005.)
I can't speak to that. I'm just using it as an example of an option that could be available to the city.

I notice some of your competition isn't ready to commit either way on a future police chief. They seem unwilling to cross Chief Malcolm McMillin's popularity. What do you think? Is the part-time police chief idea meant to be long term?
Anytime you talk about a part-time police chief you've got a problem, because the city has historically had a full-time chief. But what is working in this arrangement with McMillin is the close working relationship between the city and Hinds County.

True, there is cooperation like we've never seen, I guess.
But there's no formal structure there. What I would like to see is that relationship formalized. (If) you're going to have a multi-departmental task force, then who's going to head it up, who's going to be second-in-command, how will you divide up forfeiture dollars between the city and the county? Once we formalize a relationship between these two, this whole issue of chief vs. sheriff will be resolved.

What kind of personality would you look for in the city's top cop?
I think the desire and wish of police officers is not in terms of a specific person, but in terms of the quality of the person that they would like to see commanding. I think they would want to see a career officer who has been in law enforcement for some time and who has the leadership skills to lead the department, who will treat them fairly, treat them with respect and someone who they can respect, and who has good management skills. The police department has resources that have to be managed properly, not only the men and women who fight crime but also the jail facility, the lab and other things.

How long are you willing to commit a search for the perfect chief? You were criticized for taking so long to produce former Chief Robert Moore.
Yeah, I took a hit on that. The fact of the matter is I got re-elected in 2001. By June, I had a police chief in undertow, but not on contract. That person—well, I won't say he led me on, but negotiations extended until November, until I discovered that this person was not going to accept the position. There were several months I spent trying to get someone who was capable, who I thought could lead the department, but then all of a sudden I didn't have that person. Then we had to go into the national search. It was spring before we got a police chief. I won't bring up any names now or any excuses, but that's what transpired during our search for the police chief.

How much time are you willing to commit to get the perfect chief?
Let me just say that we're going to have an agenda that we hope to move very quickly on. We understand that people are anxious about my being timely, and I can commit that we will have within that agenda these department heads in line. It could be a 100-day agenda or a six-month agenda, but probably in 100 days we're going to have those department heads identified. Now, whether we'll be able to have them approved by the council is another matter.

Would you put grant management under one department or let each department handle its own grant procurement and management?
When I was in office we consolidated grant management—the monitoring as well as the coordination—and I still think that system is the way to go. Some departments are comfortable having their own grants division, but the problem is we need the oversight to make sure the reports are being done in a timely manner and all the requirements that come with those grants are being met, and in my opinion that's typically done more effectively outside the department with someone looking down and making sure those things happen. That doesn't mean you don't have someone in a department who can't be identified as a grant manager, but coordination in making the grant-monitoring function needs to be outside the department.

How many grant writers do we need?
When I was in office we received over $100 million over eight years in federal funding. That's not including grants like community-development block grants, and we were able to do that with a staff of three or four. I don't know what the magical number is, but you do have to have people with talent concentrated on that, who are committed to doing the work.

I've heard code-enforcement people complain that they make about $22,000 a year. Does that sound like a good wage?
I can't say. I can't say for sure what they make, and it just depends. There are code-enforcement officers, and their pay is probably similar to police officers, maybe less. I'm not sure. But paying city workers a wage that retains them has always been a problem, not only for code enforcement, but for all city workers. These are tough economic times, and there's a lot of belt-tightening going on.

We were able to make provisions for wages when I was in office before. We hope to be able to do that again, but we can't guarantee that. It would be dishonest to do so this early, considering the nature of the economy.

How many code-enforcement people does the city need?
The numbers we had when I was in office may have changed. I know that code enforcement is a very important part of city administration, but so is licensing, plumbing, gas, electrical monitoring. We may be able to do something that would allow us to train people to do multiple functions.

Some council members have argued that if we had more code-enforcement officers the city would issue more citations and thus generate more revenue. Is that how the system works?
I'm not sure if that's the way it works. Maybe those members of council had more in mind. One of the challenges that the city has always faced is the collection of fines, particularly fees associated with demolition. Just because we have more officers and issue more citations and tear down more houses doesn't mean we'll have more revenue.

Had you ever adopted a stance on rental housing? Did you ever support the moratorium on rental units?
That was more of a geographical issue. A city is made up of a diverse group. Not everybody is going to be a homeowner. Not everybody can afford to be a homeowner, so there are some people who are going to have to have apartments. Do I believe that apartments should be concentrated in one area? Certainly not. Apartments need to be spread out for diversity's sake, but you can't dictate that there can be no more apartment buildings in a city the size of Jackson. We'll have to figure out a way of converting renters into homeowners, and we'd started that process very effectively under my administration.

I know you've given this some thought: Why do you think the city's white population voted for Melton over you?
I think voters vote based on information available to them and based on what is their interest at that time. I have had all segments of the community vote for me, and I've tried to reach out to all segments of the community and will continue to do that.

But what did you do to turn off conservative voters in the city? I remember Republican candidate Rick Whitlow complaining that all the Republicans were voting for Melton over him. There's no reason to think they were voting for you over Melton in the primary.
You'll have to ask them. I believe in progressive government. I believe that government does have a role to make people's lives better, and whether that turns anybody off or not, I don't know, but you'll have to check with the conservative voters to find out for sure.

But if you don't know for sure what turned them off isn't there a chance that whatever drove them away will keep them away from you this election year?
There's no guarantee they won't. We certainly want to successfully capture the voters that didn't vote for me last time and to be victorious in the end, but you can't become something that you're not. I think a lot of candidates make the mistake of trying to be something that they're not, by affiliating with a party with which they share little political philosophy, just for the convenience of an election. I don't see myself doing that. I've never done it in the past, and I don't see myself doing it in the future.

Are there any endorsements that you're ready to announce, yet?
If we had any, I would certainly wait for better timing. We'd have a big news conference.

Melton unionized city employees a few years ago. Was that a good idea for the city's budget?
I don't know about that particular action. I remember that my commitment when I first got into office was to recognize the firefighters' and police unions. We also crafted a contract with the firefighters' union, and we were in the process of crafting a contract with the police union. Whether or not the expansion of the union to all city employees was a good move from a budgetary standpoint I can't say because I didn't know the budget at the time.

I do know that the firefighters' union did not turn out to be a budget buster. It provided pay increases, but it also provided assurances that positions were announced, that people got paid when they worked out of grade, and it made sure there were holidays.

I wanted to give you a chance to speak on repairing city streets. You'd said earlier that borrowing money for repairs is impractical, because the life of the loan outlives the repairs to the street. What are your alternative suggestions?
I did say that, though I wasn't trying to be critical because the streets are in such terrible condition you need a strong influx of funds. But you have to prioritize how to repair them. Whether you have $27 million or $1 million, or whether you have $10 million, you need a system for determining which streets are in worse shape and move to repair those streets. I've heard this bond issue money will be split among the wards, which is the political thing to do. But I think what the citizens want is a system that puts the money to the worse streets, wherever they were. We need to move toward that because we're not always going to have $27 million to fix streets. Once that's spent, we'll have $1 million or $1.5 million the following year.

Relying on a system like that would require city council members to relinquish some portion of road repairs to other council members. Some wards will get more repairs than others.
When I was in office, we were able to create a program to identify streets by priority in such a way that they were satisfied, and they approved it.

No infighting?
I wasn't privy to the infighting, but we tried to be as fair as we could. Clearly, there are bad streets in every ward, but everybody needs to have faith in a system that's working.

Other candidates are looking at the president's stimulus plan as some kind of lifesaver. Are you planning your mayorship on the availability of federal stimulus money?
I think the stimulus money will prove very important. You'll have to be judicious on how you'll spend it because it's not going to be a cure-all. I'd love to see that bond issue money for the streets be used as leverage for more stimulus money, rather than using just that $27 million by itself. I'd like to see it turned into $60 million or $80 million using stimulus money. I'm not sure it's possible, but if we have streets that are ready to go I would do all I could to prevail upon whoever's allocating the money to use those funds for that purpose.

What's the process behind leveraging money to make more money?
A lot of federal grants require matching funds. They don't just give you 100 percent to repair a water or sewer system or street. They require you to match federal funds, sometimes by 20 percent, sometimes by 50 percent. We could look at this bond issue money as leverage for even more money for city projects.

That sounds as logical as falling downward. Are you sure everybody doesn't do that already.
I can't say. I can say that I would do it.

I assume you know about MDOT's report on projects using federal stimulus money. I saw that they gave $14 million to Rankin County, and $400,000 to Hinds. Isn't there something the city could have done to improve its situation with MDOT?
I know that we've worked with MDOT on projects before, and I've found the working relationship to be a good one. Proof of that would be the new interchange at Industrial Drive, on (Interstate) 220. That interchange was the result of MDOT working with our congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of Transportation. It took some time to do it, but we got it there, and it creates tremendous economic potential for the Hawkins Field area.

If you're really talking about economic stimulus and creating jobs and the impact of putting people to work with transportation-related projects in Jackson, that should include things like doing away with the bridge over the J.R. Lynch Street extension.

What's important about the Lynch Street extension?
While we were in office, we received federal funds to design the Metro Parkway from Highway 80 all the way to Robinson Road or Highway 18 to interconnect with the crossing once you removed that bridge. The work on Highway 18 and the Parkway would have helped Metro Station over there off 18 but also provided a boost to the Metrocenter Mall.

We received the funds for the design, but I don't know where that is now since I left office.

Is it totally dead then?
Typically, once an investment has been made in a project, it's easier to go back to that funding source for implementation dollars.

You had spoken earlier on your work with the youth. Want to address that?
Youth development is a very important aspect of city government, and it's something we did before. We had the Mayor's Youth Council (and) the Youth Initiative. I visited public schools to talk about gun violence and staying in school. We want to make sure that we continue that effort.

Some of those efforts required resources. We need young people to work during the summer, but we also need to look at other ways of occupying young people's minds, and giving them skills or hobbies to keep them busy and enrich them, such as urban gardening. Urban gardening allowed them to collect some new skills and interact with people in the community, particularly seniors who are experts at gardening.

There's no guarantee that there will be federal money for these after-school or summer programs, or even for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program—if you'll allow me to re-address the city's crime issues. Federal funding for the city largely dried up under the Bush administration.
We're under a new administration now that has made clear that it wants to make municipalities a higher priority. Funding has fallen away, but there is a COPS-like program that is being put together now. I've heard some rumors on that.

Been keeping the city's Washington lobbyist on speed dial, eh?
We try to figure out what's going on in Washington, obviously. The stimulus package has occupied so much time and so much news space and attention, but the federal government is not going to stop making funds available after the stimulus is allocated. There are still going to be needs out there and opportunities for municipalities to get funding from the federal government, and we want to take advantage of it. We've done it for the police department, and we've done it for our youth programs. We've run the Mayor's Youth Initiative off federal funds and the Buckle Up America grant. Funding mechanisms like this are still around, and completely apart from the stimulus package.

Remember the issue with nominating members of the school board, how Melton allegedly threatened a board member's nomination if he did not vote a certain way on a bond contract? Can you say this early how you'll address this touchy issue?
It's too early to talk about any nomination or jobs, but I do want to make sure that people understand that I intend to have a school board with the best interests of the children of Jackson in mind. Serving the city of Jackson means serving the whole city, including its children. We want to make sure that the Jackson Public School system has a friend in Harvey Johnson as mayor. We've demonstrated that before, and we'll demonstrate that again.

Is there a sense of competition between the city of Jackson and the suburbs?
That is to be expected. I compare the city to a tree trunk that keeps the surrounding areas—its branches—alive. If the trunk of the tree dies then so do all of the branches, but cooperation between the city and the suburbs is obvious. We've passed a resolution to support the convention center. The West Rankin sewer agreement is another indicator of cooperation, as is the Airport Parkway.

Daily news and city election coverage at http://www.jfpelectionblog.com.

Previous Comments

ID
144677
Comment

Great coverage, Adam Lynch. I am so proud of Former Mayor Harvey Johnson. It is my hope that people will really pay attention to the issues and not use the rumor mills to punch a candidate out. I heard just the other day from a guy who said he was once "a STRONG Mayor Johnson supporter", but said he supported frank last because, "Johnson moved to MADISON." He went on to say that Johnson had done a good job but, "We need a mayor who lives in the City. I assured him that this was a terrible rumor and that Johnson has lived in the City of Jackson and in Ward 2 for more than 30 years.

Author
justjess
Date
2009-03-13T10:43:21-06:00
ID
144685
Comment

I met Harvey Johnson last Saturday at his HQ on State Street. I've said before that he isn't my choice, but I would not be opposed to him being back in office. I've heard those rumors about Johnson having a house built in Flora and that it was put in his daughter's name. I would think that you could interview his neighbors and they can confirm that he lives in Jackson.

Author
golden eagle
Date
2009-03-13T12:12:48-06:00
ID
144688
Comment

His daughter lives in Jackson and has been a resident here all of her life. This could be a challenge. Ask his neighbors. This research sounds so simple. "Get 'er Done." Johnson has said many times that we should keep family members out of this; however, just remember that this City elected a man who had just registered for the first time and his vote for himself was his first trip to a poll - anywhere. Let us not forget that melton does not homestead in MS. Still another question is WHERE DOES HIS WIFE LIVE??????? We are going to keep it honest and fair this time around, aren't we?

Author
justjess
Date
2009-03-13T12:52:31-06:00
ID
144690
Comment

I believe that rumor was debunked long ago.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-03-13T14:01:54-06:00
ID
144724
Comment

There doesn't seem to be a lot of chatter about the city elections yet.

Author
TravisChildersSaidNothing
Date
2009-03-15T20:11:51-06:00

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