No More Sugarcoating | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

No More Sugarcoating

In the afterglow of the King Edward's re-opening and as we've prepared this "Most Intriguing" issue, I've been thinking a bit about Frank Melton. After spending the last several months untangling from all the emotions and frustrations of covering him for four years, I'm starting to realize that he may have done the city good.

But not in the way that he promised. He didn't solve many, or probably any, of the city's challenges himself, but he did show that it's crazy to wait for some superhero to do it for us. Putting our faith into anyone who spews platitudes without giving us the whole picture is folly. Yes, we are capable of large accomplishments as a community, but not by getting there with smoke and mirrors and avoidance of the tough questions.

Since I moved back to Mississippi in 2001, it's struck me that one of our state's, and our city's, biggest problems is looking for us a good demagogue to glob onto. Today, we don't tend to choose somebody as outrageous as a Bilbo to elevate to superhero status, but we still allow people to fool us too easily.

The problem is that too often we let people tell us what we want to hear, to make things too easy, to allow us to think that someone else is going to solve it for us, when the truth is very different. Frank Melton was never going to solve crime in a few months; John McGowan was never going to solve flooding, or economic woes, in a few years.

A good leader, businessperson, teacher, journalist always focuses first on the hard stuff: the challenges that are hard to overcome. We can't hide them. When it came to Mr. Melton, he tried to gloss over the fact that crime isn't going away until we figure out how to deal with poverty, health care and educational inequities. Many people want to defy common sense and believe those things don't matter: A cowboy can just either rescue the hoodlums or pack them away somewhere else.

Then we can proceed with economic development and become a great city.

In the hoopla surrounding the King Edward's reopening, I couldn't help but think of all those proclamations in The Clarion-Ledger justifying their endorsement of Melton, despite their own archives filled with reasons he should not be mayor. We had to solve crime first, they said repeatedly, and then get on with rebuilding the city. They slammed Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and his police chief(s) repeatedly for not jumping on their sensationalistic bandwagon. But meantime, Johnson was laying groundwork that needed to be laid—both for economic development and fighting crime. He's back now to finish.

It is no coincidence that crime dropped during Mayor Johnson's first eight years, spiked during Melton's tenure and is dropping again. The misguided (if sometimes-charming) Mr. Melton thought the way to fight crime was to yelp a lot and have bodyguards with submachine guns. It was absurd, of course; if anything, he created a climate of "anything goes." And for a while, it did.

We've said for years that the city's residents need to take a close look at what led us down a bizarre road to Frank Melton. It wasn't like he was a perfectly sane public servant before he was elected; the man who became mayor was the same he had always been, and news reports about him (not to mention tapes of "The Bottom Line") prove it.

Put another way, the writing was on the Melton wall, and many people ignored it, some for admirable reasons: because they believed he was helping young people and so forth. Others ignored it because they thought he would make it easier for them to get a city contract they wanted and so on.

The lesson going forward is that fast-talking is not enough. Whenever someone tells you he or she has The Answer, make sure he or she is also revealing and addressing the challenges and admitting that he or she does not have all the answers. Make sure the talker is laying it all on the table. One thing we liked about Johnson's campaign last spring, as well as that of John Horhn and Robert Johnson, was the straight talk. We didn't have to agree with everything to appreciate that these men were not sugarcoating our challenges. Never trust a sugarcoater.

Looking ahead, Jackson's future is potentially quite bright. But there are potholes and booby traps that we have to watch for: mainly in the form of people who yell for very fast action on projects filled with challenges.

What to do about flooding in Jackson is an obvious example, and in many ways it's our biggest challenge going forward. The problem with it is that old ways of thinking has had the city in a headlock for many years. The levee board, wisely, voted recently to honor the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' recommendation that we move ahead with levees. That angered many who believe that the best solution is "Two Lakes"֖a label for the many versions of Pearl River impoundment and private development that John McGowan has angled for. Many hoped that "Thad" would bring some juicy earmark home from Washington, all the while ignoring the serious environmental concerns and legal delays attached to the idea.

Many people have long lived in a dream world on this one—a project that is unlikely to happen no matter how passionate its supporters, and how many politicians they bankroll. I was talking to one Two Lakes supporter recently, whom I admire greatly for his work downtown. As many do, he so wants to see McGowan's rosy plan come to fruition.

But wanting it doesn't make it possible, which he acknowledged. Celebrated urban planner Andres Duany—he of the planning charrettes—tried to tell Jacksonians how unrealistic a plan on such a scale was when he was brought in a couple years back. But like the people who wanted to believe the rosy picture Melton painted, many prefer to believe the pretty PR vision that Mr. McGowan puts out there, even as the Corps has tried every way it can to warn the city that the idea is simply unworkable and will delay the inevitable alternative solution for many years.

Meantime, we have wasted many years waiting for one unlikely plan to happen, and that is not Mr. McGowan's fault. You can't blame the man for trying. But at this point, the best strategy is not looking backward and blaming anyone: It is to be proactive in bringing intelligent people together to meet the challenge of flood reduction, hopefully with recreational use and smart development.

Use the King Edward as inspiration for forward thinking. And let's get past thinking that one man can save the city. It takes us all.

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