Melton's Honeymoon, Part V: Seven Degrees of Separation | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Melton's Honeymoon, Part V: Seven Degrees of Separation

Like any governmental body that has to share power, the Jackson City Council is a forum of individuals who can rarely accomplish goals without forming some kind of alliance on issues. A new round of elections, like the one last June, almost always ushers in a new volley of hand-shaking and knot-tying between personalities. Often the personalities share political ideology; sometimes the similarities shared are barely visible.

In any skirmish between the council and the mayor, however, council members are always forced to choose sides. Recent disagreements between council members and the impetuous directives of Mayor Frank Melton have revealed some shaky alliances, however, and have offered hints to the personalities at work on the council board.

After 12 years on the job, Ward 1 Councilman Ben Allen remains the city council's sole surviving Republican. Allen easily won in the city election four years ago and ran unopposed in the last election—despite initially feeling lukewarm on whether or not to run this year.

To this day, Allen remains a confident conservative who points to Ronald Reagan as a hero. In the past, Allen has had numerous public skirmishes with Councilman Kenneth Stokes of Ward 3. Though Allen opposed powerful state Republicans on some issues—such as his support for new taxes to finance the city's conference center—Allen remains a staunch fiscal conservative fighting to hold down city taxes and fees as the city's tax base rapidly flees to surrounding counties.

The population of Allen's largely white ward hugely supported Melton in his campaign, largely due to his promise to "cure" crime immediately upon taking office. Many Republicans in the ward crossed over to vote for a man many believe to be a Republican-in-disguise.

Allen knows that Melton is far from a real Democrat—as then-candidate Melton admitted to prominent North Jackson women at a campaign speech at Bravo!—and is not looking to make an enemy out of him. Allen has stood by many of Melton's tough-minded decisions on crime—including now supporting a youth curfew that he previously opposed—but the fiscal conservative has become nervous in light of some of Melton's budget decisions.

The councilman seemed shaken, for instance, when Melton unleashed a budget upon the city council calling for a $1 million tax increase—and then was staggered again when Melton rescinded the budget proposal mere hours later, saying the tax increase was a bad idea.

Allen lives in fear of lawsuits against the city, and could almost be called a stickler for details for that reason. Allen voted recently to approve a mayoral proposal to develop a city boot camp for the city's wayward youth, but did so with some reservations because the proposal didn't outline the source of the money for the program; his and other members' questions angered Melton so much that the mayor walked out of the meeting and abandoned the regular council agenda. Allen defended the council against Melton's charges that personal grudges spurred the arguments over the proposal.

"What would happen if the program didn't cost $6,163.20? What if it turned out to be $7,500? Well, we've just approved that by not specifying the amount of money. I voted for it. I saw a meltdown coming here. We saw a great briefing on it yesterday. That's the only reason I voted for it, but these are appropriate questions," Allen said.

Allen also stood with Melton as one of four council members voting to approve an $85,000 contract for retired Jackson Public Schools Superintendent Jayne Sargent to consult for the city's Human and Cultural Services Department, a department vacated by former state first lady Pat Fordice in the days following the city's recuperation from Hurricane Katrina. Some council members opposed the contract, complaining that state law requires the mayor to submit department heads for hire, rather than contracted workers who wield no hiring or firing power, and who then financially benefit from both their public pensions as well as their new contractual pay.

Allen serves on no committees.

Ward 2 Councilman Leslie McLemore has been considerably more vocal in his opposition to the mayor this year. It was McLemore who stood behind opposition to hiring "consultants" to serve in director positions. When the argument over the source of money for the city's boot-camp program broke into open discord, McLemore was the loudest critic.

McLemore is an educator who annually presides over the JSU civil rights summer course offered through the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute on Citizenship and Democracy and has a strong background in the Civil Rights Movement. Smelling a "separate but equal" battle on the horizon, McLemore nearly burst a vein when Melton proposed a citywide shadow school system for the school-age children of fleeing Katrina victims.

McLemore's penchant for disagreement comes as little surprise. McLemore, a political science professor at Jackson State University, is a vociferous nitpicker who won no popularity awards with the last administration, either. McLemore has served one full term and one partial term since winning the position vacated by former Council President Louis Armstrong. During that time, he fought savagely with Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. over the issue of school board appointments, claiming the mayor's recommendation was the purview of the council, not the mayor's office. McLemore also fired off an inquiry to the state attorney's office asking if the council had a right to reconsider the resumes of department leaders that Johnson was refusing to consider for reconfirmation.

McLemore easily won re-election in a ward that offered no significant support for Melton in the last election. In the jockeying for power between council members and the mayor, Ward 2's leader will likely be the one wielding the biggest boxing gloves.

"McLemore will always make sure that the powers of the council are maintained within the council," former Mayor Johnson grudgingly admits. "If there was any disagreement over where the powers of the mayor and the powers of the council resided, McLemore would be in the middle of it."

McLemore serves as vice chairman of the Planning Committee and serves on the Budget Committee, the Transportation Ad-Hoc Committee, the Legislative Committee and the Rules and Water/Sewer Ad-Hoc Committees.

Ward 3's Kenneth Stokes began his career this year in an unfamiliar position—as a potential swing vote on fights between the mayor and the council. Of all the incumbents reclaiming their council seats this year, as well as the mayoral contest, Stokes won with the greatest majority of voters and has enough political clout to stand alone on many of his decisions.

Though Stokes has regular disagreements with McLemore, Allen, the council president, the other three remaining council members, the janitor, the tea maid and many other personalities haunting City Hall, Stokes has rarely butted heads with Melton. Some might even claim that the mayor has largely muzzled him. More than once, Stokes has been visibly irritated about a mayoral proposal. With the curling of a forefinger, however, Melton will call him into the back office for a few moments. Minutes later, a quieter and more submissive Stokes will emerge and then vote for a proposal that minutes ago visibly bugged him.

In fact, Stokes has backed Melton on numerous issues and has turned out to be a fan of Melton's crime-fighting policies, particularly controversial teen-age curfews and frequent checkpoints that he once upon a time complained were unfairly concentrated in black neighborhoods.

Stokes says that he was not a supporter of Melton during his campaign, however, and argues that he sides with the mayor now specifically because he is taking crime more seriously.

"There're folks who want me to be jumping on the new mayor, but I've been talking and talking for years about crime, and now we got a mayor who seems to be listening," Stokes said. "I got serious crime problems in my ward. I only vote my conscience."

Melton does not draw approval from Stokes on all issues, however. The Ward 3 councilman staunchly opposed the contract of attorney Dale Danks, the former mayor who is both suing the city and representing Frank Melton in personal lawsuits. Danks has aided the people of Byram in their annexation battle with the city of Jackson and has also represented numerous individuals suing the city over the last decade.

Stokes becomes rabid when officials talk about evicting the poor. Stokes took a clear stance in defense of the residents of the Maple Street Apartments when Melton proposed to tear them down. The apartments sit at the corner of Fortification Street and Maple Street, near the northern border of Stokes' ward. When Melton moved to close down the buildings on code violations and as a potential hazard, Stokes was furious.

"These people don't have nowhere else to go," Stokes said months ago, after Mel-ton first announced a plan to close them down. "Where are people like this gonna go? You can't just uproot them."

Stokes remains one of the lone figures on the council with no visible, long-term alliances. He is perfectly willing to stomp toes and seems to hold little fear of repercussions. Stokes is just as comfortable attacking Ben Allen as he is suggesting that McLemore is capable of taking bribes, which he claimed last year in a move that brought a public scolding from the council. Stokes knew he'd touched a nerve with the accusation because the state auditor's office had investigated the council in 1999 for similar allegations involving former council President Louis Armstrong, eventually leading to convictions for extortion regarding a zoning case.

Stokes presides over the Planning Committee and is a member of the Budget, Transportation Ad-Hoc, Rules and Water/Sewer Ad-Hoc Committees.

Unlike Stokes, Ward 4's Frank Bluntson's alliance with Melton is fairly evident. He is widely known as a close friend and confidante of the new mayor; it is said that they talk by phone several times a day.
As a councilman, Bluntson can be relied upon to shake a pom-pom and give a cheer for every edict the mayor tosses out to the council, often to the point of shouting down even Council President Marshand Crisler when Crisler voices disagreement. Bluntson repeatedly interrupted Crisler during the president's recent delivery of his opinion on the Jayne Sargent city contract, charging that debating the issue was out of line and going so far as to call up the city attorney to outline rules on procedure.

Bluntson and Melton go back a long way and have shared controversial headlines in the city. Bluntson ran the Hinds County Juvenile Detention Center for 23 years, until several guards were arrested in 1992 for corruption and raping under-age female inmates.

The police chief at the time, Jimmy Wilson, could not coax District Attorney Ed Peters into bringing several guards accused of rape before a grand jury on the basis of sworn testimony from one of the guards. Nor could he to convince Mississippi FBI agent-in-charge Joseph L. Jackson to investigate allegations of abuse and corruption at the facility and against some prominent private citizens, including Frank Melton—allegations reported in 1992, 1993 and 1994 by The Clarion-Ledger, Newsday and the Dallas Morning News.

Bluntson, meanwhile, made a deal with the district attorney to leave his untenable job at the detention center if he would not be charged in the controversy—and within weeks went to work for Peters at the D.A.'s office as an investigator.

Meanwhile Jackson, after being ordered by the FBI to investigate the allegations, resigned his position with the agency and went to work with Melton at WLBT, for $140,000 a year.

That intriguing history, although known by many, was discussed little during the campaign—even when Bluntson's opponent, incumbent Bo Brown, challenged local media to search news archives. Bluntson and Melton have long maintained they did nothing wrong and blame the police, especially former Chief Wilson, for spreading false rumors.

Bluntson chairs the Transportation Ad-Hoc Committee and the Rules Committee, and serves on the Budget, Planning and Legislative committees.

In contrast to Bluntson, Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman has forged no overt bonds this early in his career. Tillman appears as likely to agree with McLemore as he is with Stokes and Bluntson.

Tillman, who is serving his first year as a council member, comes off as calm and affable, and walks into few debates wanting to pick fights. His demeanor may have recommended him as head of the city's budget committee, despite his lack of council experience.

Generally non-combative, the retired school principal has yet to lock antlers with any particular council member or proposal. Tillman recently supported the mayor's proposal to head a department with yet another contract worker, and supported the call to build a city boot camp, regardless of any potential legal difficulties.

Besides chairing the Budget Committee, Tillman also chairs the Water/Sewer Ad-Hoc Committee and serves on the Planning, Transportation Ad-Hoc and Legislative committees.

Ward 6 Councilman Marshand Crisler has built a life on strict discipline. He has spent 18 years serving in the Marine Corps, the Army and the Mississippi Air National Guard. He's crossed the planet twice and the North Pole once. Crisler returned to his wife and two kids last December from a 12-month stint with his battalion in Iraq and holds strong notions on governmental procedure—the details Melton might consider "red tape."

Crisler, though unwilling to be portrayed as the mayor's nemesis, has nevertheless found his convictions putting him in the way of Melton's heavy-handed style. Crisler has been forced to tell the press on numerous occasions that the city doesn't have the money to finance many of the mayor's optimistic initiatives, such as the expensive city holding facility that Melton was determined to build during the first month of his administration.

The council president has patiently explained that the mayor's decision to take a wrecking ball to the King Edward Hotel must first be approved by the council and that even then, the city has to meet the convoluted demolition permit requirements of a historically designated site.

"The mayor will doubtless go through a learning phase as he gets settled in. We all did. We'll be there to help him all we can," Crisler assured months ago, after Melton brought his determination to demolish the King Edward to the council.

More recently, Crisler found himself at odds with Melton's idea of filling city positions with contracted employees and took a stand against the boot-camp proposal with its undelineated source of funding. In voicing his concerns, Crisler often finds himself in agreement with McLemore, despite a brief rivalry between the two. Crisler and McLemore began the mid-part of the year beneath a bitter cloud when council members entered into a short barking session to determine the presidency of the council—a position many expected McLemore to occupy.

Crisler, according to McLemore, struck deals with newbies Bluntson and Tillman, as well as Stokes, to get votes on the presidency, though any alliance reached that day seems to be in disarray, as Bluntson regularly disputes Crisler's authority. Still, if the role of president entails casting a scrutinizing eye at mayoral proposals and sniffing out potential lawsuits, Crisler is probably making McLemore proud.

Crisler presides over the Rules Committee and serves in the Budget, Planning, Transporation Ad-Hoc, Water/Sewer Ad-Hoc and Legislative committees.

While most council members haven't broken any major molds, Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett Simon has undergone something of a metamorphosis during her latest year in office. Barrett Simon is the longest serving council member, having served almost since the formation of the council/mayoral government back in the 1980s. During that time, she played the role now occupied by Tillman: the silent council member quietly voting her conscience. Barrett Simon's most contentious relationship has been with Stokes, who accused her of being a part of the "conservative voting bloc" comprised of herself, Allen and McLemore.

Barrett Simon did have a habit of voting with the other two, and shares many of their opinions. Lately, though, their opinions have stirred argument, and Barrett Simon herself appears to have put down her teacup and donned a Viking helmet. The formerly non-combative councilwoman has more than once pulled out a war-hammer and charged, howling, at the mayor.

Barrett Simon, like Allen, was thoroughly shaken by Melton's magically rescinded budget. She remains suspicious of stubbornly unreported budgetary shortfalls, arguing that the ardently anti-tax Melton would not have otherwise bothered to submit a tax increase in the first place.

Barrett Simon's first display of aggression arrived in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when she accused the mayor of being too slow to communicate with city residents and the council.

When the power came back on, Barrett Simon continued to stand against the mayor on other fronts, most recently becoming a vocal critic of hiring contract workers to handle director positions. She has cheerily handed out legal opinions on the duties required of the mayor in this regard, such as an opinion offered by former Attorney General Mike Moore stating that "Miss.Code Ann. Section 21-8-23 provides that each department shall be headed by a director, who shall be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by an affirmative vote of the majority of the council present and voting at a meeting."

She also passed out a second opinion stating that the mayor has a duty to appoint department heads and that Miss.Code Ann. Section 11-41-1 (Supplement 2001), provides for mandamus against a public officer who fails to perform an act required by law.

Barrett Simon said she has taken a stand because of the erosion of city employee morale. "Contract directors aren't what we need," she said at last week's council meeting. "(These decisions are) affecting city employees. City employee morale is at an all-time low."

Barrett Simon presides over the Legislative Committee and serves in the Budget, Planning, Water/Sewer Ad-Hoc and Rules committees.

Previous Comments

ID
79214
Comment

I believe this City Council will be more productive overall. It is interesting observing the council without the one time united front of Allen, Barret Simon, Mclemore, Crisler, and former Councilwoman Betty Dagner Cook.

Author
K RHODES
Date
2005-12-07T20:29:24-06:00
ID
79215
Comment

Seems the article is showing how Melton has alienated each council member - even those who seem to be under his thumb. Can you actually leave a meeting and have a one on one with a council member without calling for a vote to do so or a break in the session? I don't know my council rules too well.

Author
pikersam
Date
2005-12-08T14:23:40-06:00
ID
79216
Comment

As I've mentioned in other posts, this is the one area where Melton continues to disappoint me, that in spite of some of the good ideas and people that he has brought to the table, that his relationship with the Council already has deteriorated to the point where only one or two councilpersons seem to be in his corner, and that's not good when this City has serious infrastructure needs that should be addressed in the coming year. I think it was shortsighted not to push for a tax increase this fiscal year to cover some of the programs and projects that are desperately needed to improve conditions here, but I sincerely hope that the Mayor's staff can work within their respective budgets w/o having to make draconian cuts in critical areas to cover unexpected shortfalls and w/o significant drops in service. As an aside, I find it fascinating that Stokes has been very careful not to openly criticize Melton, even on his Friday radio talk show with Charles Tisdale. Even when a caller recently blasted Melton for initially selecting Pat Fordice as a department head purely for racial reasons, both Stokes and Tisdale seemed careful to sidestep the caller's argument, in spite of it being an issue that they would have jumped all over if Johnson had done it. Although Stokes is staying silent because he appreciates' Melton's passionate "War on Crime", I suspect that his allegiance really hinges on Melton not playing favorites to NE Jackson.

Author
Jeff Lucas
Date
2005-12-08T15:06:57-06:00
ID
79217
Comment

Cheryl, Speaking of Frank Melton, the Clarion Ledger seems to continue to give this man a free pass to consistently violate the individual rights of the citizens of Jackson. Nothing is said about him knowingly taking a SEVEN YEAR OLD from his parents and home based on flimsy truant violations. I'm considerably interested in the Constitutional rights of poor people being violated by certain aspects of our elected officials in the city of Jackson. My primary concern is regarding the seven year old who was illegally taken to the detention center by the Jackson Police Department, led by the mayor. As I understand it, the child was taken from his parents with no search warrant. No probable cause or legitimate reason for removing the child was presented to the parents BEFORE the child was taken and the parents were not told where they could pick the child up. The parents reside in the low income Maple Street apartments, are poor, and don't really know their rights as citizens of Jackson. I've not heard much if anything at all from the ACLU in regards to the trampled and violated individual rights of these poor families, including those juveniles being taken to the detention center for not committing a crime. I wonder if the ACLU is aware of what the current mayor of Jackson has been doing to the citizens regarding the roadblocks and "sweeps", specifically in these low income neighborhoods of inner city Jackson? If they are, I wonder what they plan on doing to curtail or prohibit the continual violation of the rights of the citizens of Jackson, especially the poor? To my knowledge, no violations or laws were committed by the parents of the seven year old, however NO apology from the mayor's office, the Clarion Ledger, WLBT, WAPT or WJTV has been made to these individuals after all but labeling them as law breakers and unfit parents. In addition, the parents have suffered humiliation not only in front of their neighbors, but the whole state of Mississippi. What seven year old would not be traumatized after being taken from his parents and placed on a bus with 16-18 year olds and taken to a detention center which is primarily for convicted criminals? What mother wouldn't be traumatized after an ordeal of this nature? The mother was labeled as a "poor homemaker", but yet no charges from DHS were levied against her. The Clarion Ledger on Friday stated that the mayor's office allotted the seven year old child a haircut and new clothes. That's not true according to the parents. This family is in need of clothing items and furniture and they have no transportation. As of Friday afternoon, no one from the mayor's office has lifted a hand to assist this family who clearly needs material assistance, even though they hinted at assistance to the press. This seems like a case for the ACLU. If they don't get involved, how many more individual rights will the mayor of Jackson be allowed to trample on and violate at will? The citizens of Jackson, especially those poor citizens who don't know their individual rights, need their help. Sincerely, joerob

Author
Joerob
Date
2005-12-10T22:41:43-06:00

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