The JFP Interview: Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The JFP Interview: Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon

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Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon has been a familiar face on the Jackson City Council since the days of Duran Duran. Barrett-Simon's demeanor in an interview is cautious if not timid, which is not the attitude you might expect from a council member who has maintained her seat through so many elections. While other council members make vociferous speeches, Barrett-Simon works with quiet, steady resolve to get the city's business done. In the last few months, however, Barrett-Simon has become increasingly vocal about a number of issues. She led the fight to have City Council investigate Mayor Frank Melton, an effort that was superceded by the criminal indictments against him. She has expressed concern about the shrinking Jackson police department, the contract of City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans and Melton's penchant for firing people without adequate due process.

Barrett-Simon, 62, has been a Belhaven resident all her life and played a large role in the organization of the Belhaven neighborhood. The St. Joe graduate was behind a massive organizational effort in the 1970s that eventually gave birth to the Belhaven Improvement Association, the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation and similar neighborhood associations, locking the neighborhood into a preservationist mode of thinking back before the movement became popular in other neighborhoods.

How long have you been on City Council?

This is my sixth term. I was elected in 1985. That was the time that we changed the form of government here to a mayor/council form of government. We had three white male commissioners, and in 1985 we elected women for the first time and the first African American since Reconstruction.

What were some of your toughest years?

There was the time we went through the FBI investigation (the year the FBI investigated Councilman Louis Armstrong for extorting money from Time Warner). That was a very trying time. Everyone was touched by that. The fact that all of us as council members were being investigated was very difficult.

What kind of FBI investigation were you subjected to? Are we talking wiretaps?

We'd always expected that we were all checked out very thoroughly. The FBI doesn't exactly tell you when they're tapping your phone, if they are, but we did have some unusual things happen. We believe they were looking very closely at all of us.

How was tension on the council at this time? Were there any sideways looks, as if people were asking themselves, "I wonder what she's saying about me?"

Oh, yes, there was plenty of that. Not much trust at times.

How is the council now? Has everybody ironed out their differences with Marshand Crisler since Ben Allen came on as council president?

I think we let our feelings be known, and he certainly had his version of how that went. Several of us had a different version of how that went, but in politics you have to move on. It really is not good for the city for us to be in any personal squabbles. I'd like to think we've put that aside. There will be other issues in the future, but we'll deal with them.

Since we're talking tension, how's the council's relationship with the executive these days?

I'll try to summarize. This form of government is most successful when you have a good working relationship between the executive and the legislative branch. Checks and balances—it's all important. And the way this form of government is organized these days, well. … You see today we are here a few minutes before a (legislative) meeting. We attempted to get an agenda from the executive branch so that we could lobby the Legislature this season, and I'm sure we'll have something before the meeting today, but it makes it very difficult to do our work when we don't have a good flow of information.

You still don't have the legislative agenda from the mayor's office?

Not yet.

But they said they would have it ready for you two days ago.

I'm not going to say why it isn't ready, but we (the council) are already trying to put our own thing together before the meeting.

(Barrett-Simon got the legislative agenda during the committee meeting, with no time to review it.)

It sounds like you're saying communication is very much an issue right now.

Very much so. I can't say it's unique to this administration. We've had that problem before, but if I could give you one situation that would improve our local government, that would be it. I was at a meeting last night at Precinct 4, where they are having a very difficult time getting ComStat figures—again. In fact, the police officer that was there did not have the recent ComStat figures. Those are things that are very, very important.

Is the information being withheld held intentionally or through mishandling?

It doesn't matter what the reason is. If we're going to tout community policing and community involvement in crime reduction, then information is the first thing that we disseminate so that they can be partners with us. You don't fight crime from a community policing standpoint without an informed community. There's no way to do that without them knowing what they have to look for. They need to be our eyes and ears, and they can't do that if they don't know what to look for or where to focus their attention. That kind of information is critical.

What are some of the signs of progress that are taking place in the city?

When I was elected in 1985, I got involved politically trying to save my neighborhood. Had we not been successful, then there would have been no Belhaven, there would have been no Fondren.

Really? It's not often people can stick "saved a neighborhood" on their resume.

Well, there were one or two neighborhood associations in the city at that time. Now there are hundreds. Community organization is imperative if we're going to be successful, and only through the stability of the neighborhoods do we have what we have now. We've got tremendous investment in downtown, tremendous reinvestment. In the next five years, downtown will not even be recognizable, in my view. But you never would have had that investment if you hadn't taken it step-by-step and saved neighborhoods one by one. Look at the miracle of Midtown. You've got people of the third and fourth generation moving back into the neighborhood that they left many years ago, and that is a stability that we have to have that brings about the reinvestment in this city.

The Fondren story is one of great success. We've got lots to do, but we've had a lot of successes. I think the Capitol Green project, the Convention Center, the King Edward project, Farish Street—all of those things are a big part of the success story.

What are some of the challenges?

South Jackson is an incredible challenge. We have many neighborhoods in south Jackson that are not as stable as they once were.

Of course, there's the crime issue, which is one of the underlying factors destabilizing the city and breaking its health.

What kind of ideas are being tossed around on dealing with crime?

We certainly understand that the number of officers has an impact on crime, but once we train our officers we need to keep them here. I'm sure you've read the news recently where a number of officers are leaving for other cities. We've always known that to be a problem in past years, but I think it's happening more frequently now.

We can do a better job with the officers we have, and I'll go back to the ComStat issue. We don't inform our people as well as we could so they can assist our officers in community policing. We've had a tough year fiscally, and we're trying to pull ourselves through that right now. The salaries of our city employees are of prime importance to us.

What do you make of the police officer who ranted about morale on the news?

I know that we have a morale problem in the police department. As to whether that has anything to do with the news of this police officer I couldn't tell you. What I saw, though, was troubling, and we as a city need to get to the bottom of this issue. The morale problem affects us in many ways. It goes back to officers abandoning the city for other jobs at other places. That's our loss.

What's your take on the jails? Whether it's municipal or county-run, do we need another jail?

We need more space, but I believe Jackson made the right decision years ago to get out of the jail business and turn that responsibility over to the county. The citizens of Jackson are paying 80 percent of the taxes for this county. They deserve and should demand that we get better response to the jail situation. I'm hopeful that we can all come to the table and resolve this issue in a way that people can afford.

But do you think the citizens would be willing to tax themselves more to fund another jail? Are you hearing any of that from voters?

I think any time you earmark money for a specific purpose, and people know exactly where that money's going, they're willing to be in favor of a proposal. We just went through this school bond issue, which was a phenomenal success. That's an example of people knowing exactly where that money is going, what it's spent for, the importance of doing this for our city, and 81 percent voted in favor of it.

Tell me about City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans' employment agreement. Did that contract and the clause allowing her an extra cut out of bond proposals sneak through, or did the council know about it?

As a council, we have assumed responsibility. We have admitted negligence. Whether we believed that happened or not, it happened on our watch, and we assumed responsibility. The majority of us, after really looking closely at this contract, find it shocking that we didn't see some of what was included there, and it's been a tough one for us.

Is it possible to tell, from your conversations with her, whether she might be willing to voluntarily amend her employment agreement?

I haven't had that conversation with her. I know that if I were in her shoes, that's what I would do.

Has the council been more alienated from her since this happened?

I can certainly tell you that this has created tension. And there were other parts of the contract—that she could come back as a city employee and have accrued leave time—that none of us remembered seeing. As you remember, we had a confirmation hearing, and immediately thereafter had a contract. Of course, what I've said publicly is that we had no one advising us. It seems to me that the city attorney was representing the legislative branch, the executive branch, the city attorney's office and also her own employment contract. Anybody would look at that and say, "This raises a lot of questions."

I don't think the council needs a full-time attorney, but I will forever use this incident to argue that there are times when we must have legal counsel.

Our last policy analyst was an attorney, offered us an opinion, and was threatened by the city attorney for giving us that advice. We need legal counsel at times that is apart from the city attorney's office. Had we had that, this situation would never had occurred.

There's another issue with this contract. It's a four-year contract, and state statute specifically states that a city attorney is appointed for a one-year term. That's something else that we're looking at.

Did the council get any legal advice on that?

We have advice, but they're not paid by city funds. That's very important. They'll meet with us again in the upcoming weeks.

Did you wear that cowboy hat at Melton's first meeting?

I did not.

Why not? A bad fashion statement?

I never knew what to make of the situation. I just didn't feel comfortable wearing that hat.

Is it important for Melton to be punished if he broke the law (regarding allegations of him illegally demolishing a duplex on Ridgeway Street)?

I think its important for anybody who breaks the law to know that there are consequences. The courts will decide guilt or innocence.

Thank God it's in the courts, though, right?

(laughter) Yes.

What do you think about Melton's brand of crime fighting? Does it work?

I think Mayor Melton came to this office with good intentions, and his plan of attack and fighting crime are not working effectively for him or us. I'm hopeful that this time we're having now will be time where he can reflect on the past few months and realize the ineffectiveness. If he remains in office, we've got to change some things. Certainly we need a more organized way of fighting crime. It's extremely important.

When you're referring to "this time we're having now," are you referring to Melton being under the orders of a bond to put his guns down?

Well, obviously in recent weeks, for whatever reason, the mayor has not been as … what's the word … disarmed? Things are much calmer here. I don't think crime has gotten any worse since Melton started getting off the streets at night. The officers are just as capable of doing their job. Maybe this will be a time of self-assessment. He must be able to see this with a realistic eye and know that what was happening was not working.

Do you still look back on Melton's decision to disband the city's Crime Prevention Unit with a sense of loss?

We've had to get beyond a lot of things. We've lost a lot of employees that I thought were very valuable. The Crime Prevention Unit was one of them because they were a link between us, the community and the police department. We're worried about the COPS Program, now, another organized effort that is a link to the community and should be a part of our crime fighting strategy.

The city is still withholding information on the upcoming civil service hearing with the Crime Prevention people, according to their attorney.

That's a case in litigation so I couldn't offer a comment on that, but I wouldn't be surprised if their attorney had a hard time getting that information from the city. Many times, even the council doesn't have information. When we discussed the ComStat figures at the community meeting, the police officer there didn't have them. I certainly didn't have them. Information gets missed all the time. We had community meetings going on all over the city last night, and a COPS meeting at precinct 4. You know I can't imagine that we have a Crime Summit meeting last night, and the elected officials weren't notified in time. I'm told that was not just a few of us. The majority of the council had other obligations at the same time of the Crime Summit.

Do you ever wonder if your ward's too big?

No. When we went through redistricting last time our consultants, the NAACP and several others never asked for a change in Ward 7. It was the only ward that didn't experience some change.

Yeah, but there are constituents in the southern part of the ward who complain about being neglected. There's one guy in particular, and a few other members of the Battlefield Neighborhood community, asking why you haven't attended their meetings in the last eight months, or returned phone calls or letters.

Well, I have attended Battlefield neighborhood meetings. My assistant and I return huge numbers of phone calls.

That side of town has been very much a part of the crime fighting effort of Precinct 2. Commander Vance has had a number of conversations with the community and the sheriff's department has taken the Battlefield Park area and that area along Hwy. 80 as a focus to clean up and get rid of the unsavory characters in the area. There's been a lot of attention given to a number of very specific complaints in that area.

We impact a lot of things. I can't attend every neighborhood meeting on a monthly basis. If you could see the calendar of a council member you'd see that. You can't attend each and every one, but we certainly try to get the attention that they request at these meetings. Communication is important so we know what the needs are. In this situation, I think we know exactly what the needs are. That's why the sheriff's department and Precinct 2 have taken it as a priority.

What can the council do about staff problems or a jail? Are you powerless to address this?

We're not powerless. We can still be the voice of the people who elected us. When a serious problem comes to my attention, I go to the commander, the police chief, or I place it on the council agenda. I think you do your best work, one-on-one behind the scenes with the police officers and command staff. We've done plenty with that area already. We have a school there now which is one of the best in the city, we have a tennis group that plays there on a weekly basis. We've had a number of clean-ups in the neighborhood and the Hwy. 80 corridor. Not to say there aren't problems. The problems there certainly continue to be a challenge, but you still see some positive things happening.

Habitat investing in the Battlefield Park area is a powerful move for them, because they don't make hasty decisions over at Habitat. Colonial Heights Baptist Church is very involved in Battlefield Park, and I talk to them often.

It's like in any area: You've got challenges, and you've got success stories. We'll keep trying to get some more success stories.

Does City Council go into executive session more often these day?

Yes, we have. There've been times when I thought it was unnecessary. Where I have disagreement is where everything discussed in an executive session has to be protected by the executive session. I don't believe a payment made to an individual with taxpayer money is an issue that should be bound by executive session. It may be discussed in executive session, but it is a matter of public record. I disagree with some of my colleagues.

Is there any decision on Allen's resolution to discourage speaking on topics discussed in executive session?

Well, there was some discussion on asking for an AG's opinion on the matter, but they looked at it, and there already is one, and it turns out that there's nothing stopping (council members from talking). So Allen is no longer pushing for that.

Have you ever thought about going Republican?

Go Republican? (look of outrage)

What issues make you a Democrat?

Where do I start? I've been a Democrat all my life. I'm conservative fiscally, but I believe in investing in our children and investing in our communities, which, from a fiscal standpoint, saves you more money in the long run. … The argument in education, for instance, could be pay now or pay more later.

My husband's a Republican.

The kids must have really suffered.

(laughs) Oh, they're fine.

Why have you never run for mayor?

People have asked me that a lot, and it's not one I take lightly. At this point, the time has just not been right for me. When I was elected in 1985, I had five children at home. Did you know that?

I knew you had kids, but I didn't know you had that many.

Five daughters, the youngest starting first grade, with all the others in every grade between there and graduation. It was a handful, so the time was never really right.

Previous Comments

ID
80728
Comment

Wow. Ms. Barrett-Simon seems to be a very classy lady. She also seemed to be very honest and open with her answers.

Author
LatashaWillis
Date
2006-12-06T20:20:02-06:00
ID
80729
Comment

What a beautiful tribute to a rare, honorable person. Gratefully, Anne

Author
anne mayeaux
Date
2006-12-07T01:29:54-06:00
ID
80730
Comment

Councilwoman Barrett-Simon is truly one of the most elegant, well respected and honorable persons on the council. May God bless.

Author
SidneyRJohnson
Date
2006-12-07T09:05:21-06:00
ID
80731
Comment

Having worked with Councilwoman Barrett-Simon when I was in city government several years ago I can assure readers that she is as genuine in person as she comes across in this article. I will also add that she looks out for the entire city, not just her ward.

Author
Mr PR Professional
Date
2006-12-07T09:52:07-06:00
ID
80732
Comment

i believe she would be the right person to serve as acting mayor after the likely ouster of melton in the days ahead

Author
chimneyville
Date
2006-12-07T10:05:00-06:00
ID
80733
Comment

I sincerely hopes she sees this: You are one of two people on that council that I trust. Period. I have no idea how you have the stomach to work with some of those folks... you are a stronger person than I am. God Bless.

Author
LawClerk
Date
2006-12-07T10:23:45-06:00
ID
80734
Comment

Read this piece from the print edition the other day at one of my favorite watering holes. My hats off to Mr. Lynch. Well done! Don't get info like this anywhere else in Jackson. Just sound bites. After this article, I'd like to add Mrs. Barrett-Simon to my wish list of folks I'd like have a conversation with. Obviously a very thoughtful, insightful politician. Rare.

Author
Doc Rogers
Date
2006-12-11T21:06:36-06:00

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