Sketching a Plan for Jackson: The JFP Interview with Mayor Tony Yarber | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Sketching a Plan for Jackson: The JFP Interview with Mayor Tony Yarber

Photo by Trip Burns.

It started seven months ago, with a simple message: "You're right! I've changed. Why haven't you?"

To date, Mayor Tony T. Yarber's has posted 37 of his motivational napkins on Instagram since taking the top job in City Hall in April 2014. What Yarber said started as an earnest exercise in jotting down a few notes for a public-service announcement on a local radio station grew so rapidly in popularity that followers started demanding them. For his part, Yarber, the youngest person ever to be elected Jackson mayor, has happily obliged, using the medium as to communicate with and engage citizens.

So far, Yarber isn't overwhelmed.

"You know what, I don't feel any pressure to napkin all the time," he told the Jackson Free Press recently. "It's only by inspiration."

It's just as well because Yarber, who turned 36 days before he took the oath of office last April, has plenty of other pressures. He inherited a generation's worth of water-sewer and other infrastructure woes so long ignored that the federal Environmental Protection Agency slapped the city with an order to fix its sewer system. He also faces the day-to-day challenges of running a medium-sized city in the South beset with crime fears and poverty, and threatened with stagnation.

At the same time, even though Jackson has a strong-mayor form of government, the city council that he left to become mayor has a mix of sage wisdom and youthful vigor that has been reluctant to grant Yarber the deference given to mayors in the recent past.

The council has closely scrutinized many of the administration's moves from Yarber's reluctance to implement a city minimum-wage increase the council passed, to the hiring of North Carolina-based Raftelis Financial Consultants, to switching the city's financial institution.

Despite all that, Yarber still counts the filling of 5,000 to 6,000 potholes (out of 200,000), the development of the master plan for spending the 1-percent sales-tax money voters agreed to, and overhauling the city's process for remediating dilapidated and abandoned houses as successes.

Infrastructure remains a thorn in the city's side as well, particularly related to the Capitol Street two-way project, which hit several snags and has frustrated business owners downtown. In addition to continuing outreach to businesses on Capitol, Yarber said that as part of the legislative agenda for the upcoming session, the City would seek to create a special improvement district that could involve asking the state to share the responsibility of maintaining or transferring ownership of infrastructure near the Capitol.

Yarber recently invited the Jackson Free Press to the ceremonial mayor's office on City Hall's first floor to discuss his views on napkining, infrastructure financing, his trip to the nation's capital, the political rumor mill and how not to get racially profiled in Walmart.

Of the successes you recently named for your team, what's something started under your administration that you were able to see through to fruition?

It would have to be the infrastructure master plan. People went to the polls and voted for the 1-percent sales tax back on Jan. 14 (2014) last year, and Mayor Lumumba got that kicked off by putting it in front of the people. The pressure was on for us to get that commission in place and to make sure we had a solid plan in place. The commission has a draft, and they'll vote on it this month. We think we'll be able to move toward seeing dirt turning over this year.

Have the commissioners talked specifics about how the money will be spent?

The conversation has been about financing, and it's been about prioritization. So we've been able to show them, through use of Raftelis and them helping construct a financial model. Hopefully, we'll get the council to approve our (financial adviser) and our financial adviser will come on and help us construct some kind of financial strategy. What we think is that we'll be able to leverage maybe half of that money that's raised and then use the rest for PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) in certain situations.

So leveraging simply means being able to go after grants, funding. Some of the grants call for matching. What we don't want to do is put all this money toward debt service; that would be irresponsible.

We've had a great reception from the (U.S.) EPA. The EPA has seen the framework of our plan, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors Council Water has seen it. We've done presentations for both of those groups.

Are you talking about the (EPA) consent decree?

No, this is about the master plan. What we've done is an integrated master plan. Here's the question to frame it. I was asked a question by (U.S.) Sen. (Roger) Wicker last week: How are you all going to balance what needs to be done with what everyday people want to see done? So we know what the needs are. We've got infrastructure under the ground. People want to see potholes and stuff taken care of, so the best way we've understood how to do that is through an integrated master plan that gives us the ability to do all those things, comprehensively at one time.

So you'll be able to satisfy the consent decree while also doing other things?

We'll be able to deal with compliance issues as well as what I'm calling our triple bottom-line benefits in the infrastructure master plan: We believe we can achieve social benefits as a result of it, environmental benefits and economic benefits.

Under the social piece, we think it gives us the opportunity to give appropriate and fair access to curbs and sidewalks for our (disabled) community. So we're not a community that's all-inclusive unless we have sidewalks that do the kinds of things that will provide for accessibility. Right now, you don't see that. Through this integrated master plan, you look at things like complete streets and being able to ensure that if we're going to tear up an entire street, that when we reconstruct that street that we're not just impacting the infrastructure itself, but we're impacting the quality of life in that community.

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The success or failure of Mayor Tony Yarber’s administration rests largely on how he handles millions of dollars of infrastructure repairs the city must make. Yarber says setting up the oversight commission and developing a master plan for 1-percent sales tax funds is his most significant accomplishment so far.

(In terms of) economics, we look at the fact that we're about to spend a lot of money. So how do we make sure the money we're about to spend gets in the hands of Jacksonians, ultimately affects our economic stability in the city and makes sure people are able to spend money?

Environmentally, we want a model of green infrastructure. We want to show how we can be responsible to the environment and infrastructure by using green infrastructure and not just gray infrastructure. We think we've got a responsible, specifically in response to what the (U.S.) Senate did the other day in voting 99 to 1 in accepting that climate change is real.

The sales-tax money is separate from city money. If we're talking about an integrated plan, does that present problems for how the money gets doled out?

The legislation is clear on what we can and can't spend it on. We've outlined in the plan. We can spend the funds in the integrated plan because we specifically say in the infrastructure master plan what one aspect is for and what's it's not—bridges, drainage, streets and roads, water-line improvements. Those are things the 1-percent legislation says we can spend it on. We have created a plan that deals with all of these at certain points collectively. So for example, west Jackson and Capitol Street, they may have drainage issues, street and road issues and water-line issues. What we're saying is through an integrated plan, we're going to deal with the water line, street and drainage issues all at the same time. So it won't be 'let's go and spend $25 million on streets and roads this year.' No, let's make sure it is contiguous. I think the idea is that you measure twice and cut once. We don't want to put down all this street pavement and then come back in a year and tear the street up just to do water line replacement. So infrastructure planning talks of sustainability, it makes sure that the plan we have in place is something that will actually outlive us.

What's the timeline for public hearings?

I think the plan is for the public feedback to start on Monday, we'll publish those and put it out in communities, in churches and libraries, online and then there'll be two weeks for the public to provide feedback.

What's the front-end amount to get the ball rolling?

This first year, we're looking at $60 million, and the projects are outlined — until we get public feedback, which could change our direction.

You said recently that you wanted to take back your vote on the city council in favor of the Siemens contract and kind of alluded to the fact that the performance guarantee might not be met. Could that be a way out of the contract or at least to have it renegotiated?

I won't play lawyer, but what I do know is that we have some concerns about being able to realize the savings that have been promised through the contract. What I know now is we've done $90 million, which has primarily gone towards equipment and not into infrastructure. It's a water-line improvement project, but we haven't replaced a water line. So if had known then what I know now, and thank God we've got Kisha Powell, who's been an amazing tutor for myself and the council that we're better positioned to make better decisions.

So are you going to try to renegotiate the contract?

If you talk to folks, I don't just lie down and let people do anything to me. If we find that there's some issues where recourse is there, then we'll pursue those.

When do we get Raftelis' report?

They've done a substantial amount. The only thing we're waiting on is the piece for the infrastructure master plan so we'll receive a report on the entire scope of work of the project that Raftelis has.

If you could end the contract, would you?

I'm not necessarily sure I'd end it. I'd look for opportunities to get the guarantees that we were told we would receive. I don't think it's time to jump ship because if you jump ship, you still lose.

I think we still have to keep pressure on those people who have made promises and contractual agreements to us to deliver. I would be looking to renegotiating going forward but not jumping ship.

You mentioned Sen. Wicker earlier. Have you had a chance to talk to the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee (U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran)?

I have.

Was that conversation fruitful?

Those kinds of conversations, you don't really know how fruitful they are until you start seeing the fruit if you know what I mean.

I'm encouraged because we were able to walk in and do what we were told this city has not done in the past. That is, we walked in with a plan, a list of asks and asserting ourselves into the process. Now, we'll see if that pans out and if it equals us being able to tap into pots of money that we haven't been able to tap into.

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Courtesy Tony Yarber

Mayor Tony Yarber’s family from left: Toni Michelle (daughter), Rosalind (wife), Tony, Carmen (daughter), Braylen (grandson) and Cameron (son).

I met with the senator ... as well as Congressman (Bennie) Thompson (and) Congressman (Gregg) Harper all last week. And the conversation was the same with everyone, and that conversation was: Here's a plan, here is how we are doing checks and balances for external funds. We understand that in the past, there's been concern with how the city handles external funds, whether or not we've been timely and compliant, so we walked in saying here's what we're doing to make sure we don't embarrass you and to make sure the city is no longer looked at as being a black hole in terms of money. We'll see how that goes. We'll continue to be persistent. We've got a representative there, Ice Miller, who's our lobbyist. We plan on being extremely engaged and making sure our congressional delegation is plugged into what Jackson is doing so we'll be sending them quarterly reports so they can see what's happening.

What's on the city's congressional agenda?

Primarily infrastructure and transportation. I really want to tap into (U.S.) Department of Justice funds to really give an injection to our Fresh Start (offender reentry) program. There's some funds out there I think that could give us a very serious reentry program, that the city of Jackson can own. Right now, it's kind of bare bones. We had a planning grant, but that's about it. Right now, we really need some operational funding.

Is Fresh Start still going?

Still going, and as I stated in the year in review, we've been to put several (people) to work through that. We've got to find those nooks and crannies that gives us an opportunity to fund a lot of this projects that we have. I took a letter of support to each one of the congressional delegates, it's a bill that Sen. Wicker and Sen. (Cory) Booker of New Jersey have cosponsored, and it is an Innovation in Surface Transportation Act.

A measure is in that bill that gives cities like ours the ability to receive some funds directly as opposed to having to go through your typical (Metropolitan Planning Organization) process. That's going to be big for us. So we know that transportation is going to be a hot button, and I'll tell you now, any candidate who doesn't use transportation as a top priority on their agenda, they shouldn't even run.

What Jackson is experiencing is a national conversation about infrastructure and transportation. I was at the U.S. Conference of Mayors convention, and every mayor in the room whether they were black or white, big city or small, their issue is infrastructure—pipes, sewer, sanitary sewer overflows. I think the drumbeat on that is getting louder.

What are we specifically talking about for transportation?

Our vision for Jackson is to go to an intermodal transit system where we see different forms of transportation throughout the city. Our priority, though, is to create a type of express transportation piece. You hear complaints about JATRAN all the time, about how long folks have to wait, the fact our operational hours aren't convenient for everyday people. I would love to see JATRAN turned into an arterial/perimeter system where we have things like the big buses bringing people into the city and doing park-and-rides. (Or) we've got an express piece in the city where we're taking folks from downtown to UMMC hospital, downtown to state street (or) to County Line Road and for those things to happen every 15 minutes. We are working on a plan as part of our comprehensive plan to do that.

The other piece is high-speed rail. I'll be in Birmingham, Ala., on Feb. 6 meeting with the African American mayors' association and (U.S.) Secretary of Transportation (Anthony) Foxx. I'd love to see the I-20 mayors get together to do high-speed rail along that I-20 line, where we could see folks shooting in and out of these cities. Jackson is the only real hub in I-20 because we've got I-55 and I-20. We recently submitted to Secretary Foxx ... a plan for pipeline-ready projects. Hopefully, we can get approval for those ... projects. We have this idea that we can connect transit to the infrastructure component.

Sens. Wicker and Booker are an interesting pairing. In the recent U.S. Senate race in Mississippi, we saw a new political paradigm emerging of black Democrats working with our Republican members of Congress. What are your thoughts on that?

I always have reservations about new partnerships and new friendships. It's no different than when I meet people. In this particular case, all politics are local.

The mayor's job is probably the only job where you get to impact people's lives every day right away; not even the president of the United of States can do what mayors around this country are able to do. That's why (the Obama) administration has been so welcoming to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and African American Mayors' Association.

What I understand clearly is that there is a stigma down the street at that state capitol, and there's a stigma in D.C. by many of our delegates about my city. I can maintain who Tony Yarber is and who the city of Jackson is and at the same time create an opportunity for us to benefit from these other towns and cities have benefitted from. This isolation idea hasn't worked for us so we've got to be mindful of our core principles, but we've also got to understand that if we're going make this stuff work, we've got to make ourselves amiable and available to these networks that we haven't been a part of in the past.

The Wicker-Booker bill sounds like a cool thing. If there were, say, a Yarber-Phil Bryant initiative, it would be met with suspicion here.

I think we get beyond that by winning. When I first went to the governor's office, I knew because of politics it would be a problem. But you know what? The only people it's a problem for is politicos in this city.... When we are visiting with folks who've got drainage issues, they don't care about why we don't get along with people on the other side of the aisle. What they're saying is, 'y'all figure this stuff out.' A guy made a comment on Instagram. He said he don't like Yarber, he don't like the council, he don't like nobody elected because they are self-serving. On the surface, he is absolutely right because when you forget about the people who sent you there and why they sent you, it becomes all about you. It's no long about public service anymore.

Here's how my first meeting with the governor went: I sat down, I said: 'Governor, we already know what we don't agree on. I'm not here to talk about abortion. I'm not here to talk about these things that are contentious because I have my position, and you have yours. It's clear that I'm a Democrat and you're a Republican. That probably won't change for me. But here are some issues we can work on right now together,' and he agreed. Those issues are (that) people want to feel safe, people want to make sure the water that they're drinking is healthy, people want to make sure that the schools that people send their children to are great schools. That transcends our political philosophies; that ought to touch on why we do this job.

Do you think there's a political downside for you in this?

(There) is, but if you're going to be a good leader you've got to be willing to be sacrificial and take a risk for the people that sent you here. If in 2017 somebody wants to say Tony Yarber is a sellout because he talked to the governor, and I'm able to show where my selling out was to get downtown reinvented, get the zoo and Livingston Park working well, get drainage happening in neighborhoods like the Sub where those folks haven't had their ditches dug out in forever, then you call me what you want. What you won't be able to say is that our people are still in need. I didn't run for mayor to be mayor forever. I ran for mayor because I was born here, I was raised here, I love this place, and I had what I believe is a God-given responsibility to have what we need in order to succeed. I'll sit at the table with anybody, but everybody sitting at the table with has to play with both hands on the table.

There's a sense that people are waiting for you to make a fatal mistake. Specifically, I'm thinking about reactions I see on social media, the spread of rumors of your arrest in November. Is that something you feel you need to do something about?

What can I do about it? I was in (Washington) D.C. last week watching the State of the Union address, and the president was going down his list of accomplishments. Then, he started talking about how women should receive equal pay. Everybody on the left stood up and clapped, and everybody on the right side, with the exception of maybe three or four people, sat and didn't clap. I looked over the balcony, and I realize there were women who did not stand, nor did they clap. Wow. There are people in this room who would rather see people suffer and be poor than to support his vision and his mission. Then I said to myself "Tony Yarber, get over it and keep doing what you do."

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At his first State of the City address, in July 2014, Yarber prepared residents for the challenges that lie ahead. In addition to admitting that there would be growing pains, Yarber unveiled plans for what has become his mantra—a bold, new city.

Let me quote (attorney and Lumumba mayoral aide) C.J. Lawrence. He said — I wrote it down because it was powerful—"Work hard for the people that put us here and who will keep us here." Fifty-four percent of the people put us here. I'm working hard for that 54 percent. When I go in Walmart, when I go in Dirt Cheap, when I go in Sprint Mart, when I go in the barbecue shop ... my children don't like to go places with me in the daytime in public. You know why? Because so many people are stopping us to tell us about the good work that we're doing. That's the 54 percent. In this game, there are people who will never support what you do. I'm the first mayor from this city to attend the State of the Union address, to have a face-to-face meeting with the E.P.A administrator concerning our consent decree.

There are opportunities since I came into office to sit with the secretary of the (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), to be in a room with these people, who are finally putting their gaze on Jackson. Guess who's proud of that? The 54 percent.

What about the 46 percent?

They have to decide that I'm the leader until they get (an) opportunity to vote. ... So what's the option? Because you're not my guy, we shut the city down, that we don't move forward? And if you choose that option, what's that say about your real commitment and motive? It doesn't say much about this city because Yarber's agenda is to move the city (forward). I'm not on that anymore; I'm beyond that.

I consider myself a good guy. I don't mess with folks. The reason I won in 2009 is because I was connected to the community that elected me. I beat a former judge. I won reelection, (with) 80-something percent (of the vote). We won mayor because 54 percent of the people believed in the work that I'd done. We've always been on the outside looking in. The only thing I know to do is to win. I get up every morning, I come to work, and we try to get it done for the city.

De'Keither (Stamps, city council president) said on the radio—I tweeted what he said—"You shouldn't have to lobby the people that represent you." When I get up and come here, I'm coming to make sure the people's business gets done.

Is the criticism a distraction for you?

Not anymore. It was. I think it was a distraction because I just couldn't understand how people could just not like the good guy. Even as it relates to my family stuff. Y'all only knew (about past infidelity) because I told you. That wasn't a scandal. But I can't be to (detractors) what they are to me. That ain't how my mama raised me or how my daddy raised me. You asked about 46 percent. I'm going to work hard for the 46 percent, but the 46 percent should also consider working hard with the programs that we're setting forth.

A number of young men were arrested as suspects in several crimes in the area. Since you are in a position to make changes, from where you sit, what changes could have happened in their lives that could have produced a different outcome?

I don't know what did or didn't happen in their lives. What I do know is that every boy needs his daddy. I'm not talking about a dude that shows up and takes a young man to the store or to the movies because there's a difference between being present and being a presence. So I don't know about those young men, but what I do know is that every boy needs his daddy, and if his daddy isn't there, every boy needs some man to be that presence. I think that's the difference between being poor and black now and being poor and black when my daddy was growing up, and they were able to make better choices.


There's been a lot in the news in the past few months about young, black men and how black parents should talk to their kids about Mike Brown and Tamir Rice. You're a daddy to a black son and black daughters. What are those conversations like in the Yarber household?

During the Mike Brown (protests), my son was watching and asked, 'Daddy, so they shot him and his hands were up?' And I said 'Yeah, that's what they're saying.' So my son wanted me to take a picture of him and when I get ready to take the picture, you know what he does? He puts his hands up.

That prompted me to have that conversation, the same conversation that my daddy had with me when I first started driving. And this is how the conversation went, the same conversation that's been going on for generations in African American homes with daddies or mamas who are concerned about their kids: When the police pull you over, you put your hands on the steering wheel, and you don't take them off. When they come to the car, you say "yes sir" and "no sir." When they ask for your permission to get your license, he taught me which hand to reach with.

When I go in Walmart, I don't stay in Walmart long. I walk fast. I get what I need and leave. I'm the mayor, but I'm still programmed that way. My son was in Walmart, and the security guard stopped them, him and my nephew, and said they were stealing. They had money. So the conversation I had with my son was when you go into Walmart, know what you're going to get. Don't walk around looking lost. Go get the dadgum candy and get out. When he starts driving, he's going to get the same conversation. And it's not because there's a distrust of law enforcement; it is because I am a daddy who doesn't want to give anybody an excuse to do something to my child, and I'm a part of this system now that can help to make these changes.

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