Ward 2 Councilman Melvin Priester Jr. is running for re-election in the May 2 Democratic primary.
Polls are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. His answers to the JFP candidate questionnaire are published below, verbatim.
Name: Melvin V. Priester, Jr.
Job and Employer: Attorney, Priester Law Firm
College(s) and degrees: Harvard College, A.B. Magna Cum Laude 2001; Stanford Law School, J.D 2004
High school: William B. Murrah High School (Valedictorian) - 1997
Spouse: Holly Smith
Previous political office: Incumbent, Ward 2 City Council
1. Why does your ward/district need you specifically right now?
Ward 2 is a diverse area which is at a crossroads in terms of both the challenges it faces and the great potential that rests within its neighborhoods and residents. I have proven on Council that my work ethic, my ability to build bridges and think creatively, and my willingness to communicate with citizens get results. I bring the skillset, experience and perspective needed to help both navigate the current challenges facing ward 2 and position the ward to capitalize on future opportunities.
2. Provide one or two examples of when you have been an advocate for your district/ward in your personal or professional life. What was the result?
Since becoming a Councilman, I’ve worked hard to shore up the social infrastructure of Ward 2 by focusing attention on community centers and senior centers and helping them be better resources for neighborhoods. I’ve accomplished that by holding community movie nights, establishing music programs for neighborhood kids, (https://todaysfuturesound.bandcamp.com/album/todays-future-sound-and-councilman-melvin-priester-jr-present-jacksonbeats), and saving funding for the Americorp program.
I’ve also strongly fought for infrastructure and maintenance in Ward 2. Even when it’s meant going to someone’s home every morning for weeks to highlight the importance of getting something repaired, I’ve been hands-on with residents’ concerns in order to make sure the City does what is required.
3. In the past year or so, what was the most important vote in council affecting your district/ward. How would you have voted and why?
In my time on Council, the most important votes for Ward 2 have all pertained to the budget and the contracting process. I’ve voted to increase transparency, improve accountability and make sure that we are spending money in ways that best benefit ward 2.
4. What are the top three most pressing issues for your district/ward? Please provide potential solutions.
1.) Infrastructure. We need to establish a Project Management Office (PMO) under the Public Works department to manage all large infrastructure projects and seek additional federal and state funds for repairs and maintenance.
2.) Crime. We need to strengthen the relationships between the police department and neighborhood associations. Every beat officer assigned to a neighborhood should have direct contact with the neighborhood association board they patrol. We should also train and empower neighborhood based “violence prevention coordinators”
3.) Education. Ward 2 is largely a residential ward. Our neighborhoods need JPS to thrive in order to attract new residents and to be safe. Our first step is getting a superintendent who can focus on recruiting and retaining teachers. We must then work with JPS, our business community and our institutions of higher learning to engage students and prepare them for an evolving global community. I have seen forward thinking collaborations work firsthand in Ward 2 through the music education workshops I have organized and I believe these sorts of efforts can be scaled up across the city.
5. If you could propose one ordinance that would greatly improve the quality of life for people your district/ward, what would it be?
Jackson’s problem is not a lack of ordinances. Rather than create new laws, we need to enforce the ordinances we have on the books already, particularly with regards to code enforcement. We also need to get systems and people in place to generate revenue in ways that don’t punish people who are already struggling to make ends meet.
6. Too many young people in Jackson end up as suspects or victims of violent crime. What are your specific ideas to assist with city crime prevention that do not involve the police directly?
- Empower and train neighborhood leaders to be violence prevention interrupters and provide proper oversight and tools.
- Create an Office of Violence Prevention to remove violence from being an issue centered just in the police department and to create and coordinate programs between JPD, JPS, human & cultural services, and healthcare experts (See http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/08/473379238/baltimore-sees-hospitals-as-key-to-breaking-a-cycle-of-violence)
- Create safe spaces and give young people the tools to make their own activities. For the last four years, my office has done a program called “the community PA” where I loan sound gear, DJ equipment, video projects, etc. to people who want to do events like dances, community events, and block parties. By making this equipment available, I’ve been able to help young people create their own fun and stay out of trouble.
7. Provide three examples of what you believe are the most critical improvements needed in the entire City of Jackson.
1.) Create a can-do, customer-service focused culture in city government; and
2.) Modernize the city’s workforce so that we are better able to use technology to get tasks done; and
3.) Comprehensive planning linking infrastructure, finance, and city hiring.
8. What needs to happen to improve the city’s infrastructure?
- We need to increase the tools available to do maintenance in order to increase the scale of repair and improvements made across the city
- We need to better coordinate the 1%, Capital Complex, and Consent Decree Programs across the various stakeholder groups
- We need to place the water billing department under the leadership of people with experience in utility management.
9. What experiences qualify you for this position?
- As someone raised in Ward 2 and a graduate of JPS, I possess a clear understanding of the social and educational challenges facing both our city and residents;
- I’ve served for four years as city councilman and have direct experience navigating institutional challenges that could prevent much needed relief from reaching the citizens of Ward 2 and Jackson overall;
- My business experience (corporate and entrepreneurial) and experience as a practicing attorney for 13 years provides me the technical expertise to breakdown contracts and serve as a voice of accountability in city hall ;
- My work ethic – During my 4 years on the council I’ve been able to instill a culture where all business that comes before the council is subject to a thorough review to ensure that the best interest of the citizens is kept at the forefront of all decisions. This work ethic has prevented tax hikes, saved programs like Americorps, and ensured that nothing is missed when looking to save vital city programs during budgetary reviews;
- My ability to think critically and creatively has allowed me to build bridges in the public and private sectors;
- My communication skills and temperament have allowed me to serve as a voice for those across ward 2.
10. What do you think needs to happen to improve public education in Jackson?
JPS needs a superintendent with a proven record on recruiting and retaining teachers.
JPS, JPD, the City, the health care community, and local judges need to work to have a comprehensive approach to discipline that tries to focus less on criminalizing teens and more on having targeted interventions that try to keep kids in their home schools and makes sure they get the individualized support they need. We also need to leverage both the renowned educational, cultural and business institutions in Jackson to help ensure that not only are we creating curriculums that will prepare students for careers in a globalized economy, but that also that students are being engaged in a manner that speaks to their own unique talents and learning style.
On a related note, we need to support teachers and give them consistent training and backing. Many teachers feel that they are subject to inconsistent feedback and expectations from administrators. We should put in a solid framework around teachers and that should go a long way in fighting our retention problems.
Finally, buses must run on time and buildings should be safe. To the extent the City can provide assistance to JPS from a pure maintenance and operations front, I will do all I can.
11. What do you think about the One Lake project? Please detail any concerns.
It has a great deal of potential but everything turns on how it will be financed at the Federal and State level. To the extent that it negatively impacts or at all impairs our obligations under the EPA consent decree versus the extent to which it creates an opportunity to ease our burdens with the Savannah Street waste water plant, those are the details I’m watching.
12. How can city council and the mayoral administration improve its relationship?
The relationship between the Mayor and City Council can function smoothly only when the Mayor and the administration share accurate information in a timely manner with the Council. The goal of local government is to best serve the needs of the citizens of Jackson. City government ceases to function without a dedication to transparency, accountability, and accuracy. These are the principles that must underpin everything that occurs in city hall. It’s a two way street and I’ve tried to foster communication by always being upfront about the things that concern me about projects and making the time to meet with all stakeholders. With a commitment to open communication, accurate information and accountable operations, Jackson’s city government will flourish.