Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba’s decision to hire Steve Hutton, who pleaded guilty to charges of promoting prostitution in 2021, as the City’s new interim director of parks and recreation is drawing criticism in Mississippi’s capital.
Following an investigation in 2020, the Madison Police Department and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation arrested Hutton, who was the executive director of the Mississippi Fair Commission at the time, and charged him with the state felony.
Before the arrest, he also served as a vice president for Promise Keepers, a Christian ministry for men. Hutton pleaded guilty to the charge in a Madison County Circuit Court, and a judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison with seven suspended. He ultimately served one year in the Mississippi Department of Corrections and two years in an intensive supervision program.
Jackson City Councilman Kenneth Stokes voiced his disapproval when asked about Hutton’s appointment to the position. “Hell to the naw naw. Hell to the naw. Hell to the naw naw. Hell to the naw naw naw. Hell no,” he told WAPT on Sept. 12.
Stokes explained his opposition to the appointment in an interview with the Mississippi Free Press on Wednesday.
“It’s commendable to say we’re not going to look at whether or not somebody was a criminal or made a mistake when they were young. But this is not simple shoplifting, and this is not a low-level position,” he said.
During Mayor Lumumba’s announcement of the interim director on Monday, he cautioned the public against rushing to judgement because of Hutton’s prior conviction.
“Mr. Hutton and I have had significant discussions about his conviction. I acknowledge that he has taken full accountability for his actions,” the mayor said, adding that he has no doubt the appointee has the ability and skills necessary to do the job.
Lumumba cited his administration’s commitment to “ban the box,” an initiative that prevents employers from requiring formerly incarcerated people to reveal on a job application that they’ve been convicted of a felony. Instead, Lumumba said, the focus should be on whether or not a person can do the job.
“He’s talked about his vision for the community. I think that it’s important that once somebody pays their debt to society, they are given another opportunity,” the mayor said.
He cited Hutton’s “track record of success and accomplishments” as his reasoning for appointing Hutton to the position.
“It was important to bring someone on who could provide the level of service our residents deserve. My mission is to bring forth people who are talented and skilled enough to help us move past challenges,” the mayor said.
Under Hutton, Lumumba said he envisions residents having better parks and recreation experiences and that he looks forward to engaging community members and stakeholders. But he added that he was “not promising everything will be fixed overnight.”
‘A Tool That Saved Many Children’
Steve Hutton’s appointment comes after Ison Harris Jr., who served as Jackson’s parks and recreation director for eight years, resigned on Sept. 8.
The former director faced a number of challenges during his tenure, which Mayor Lumumba acknowledged. Thomas Cheatham, a longtime resident, baseball coach and youth advocate in Jackson, gave an impassioned speech during a July 18 Jackson City Council meeting where he voiced his concerns over the dilapidated condition of many of Jackson’s public parks—places he said played a big role in his life growing up in the 1960s. He pointed to Grove Park, in particular.
“Grove Park was a place for Negros to play baseball when we couldn’t play anywhere else. It was a tool that saved many children. Today, children can’t play there at night,” Cheatham said. He mentioned overflowing trash, overgrown grass, a lack of sufficient lighting and a dilapidated pool as some of the issues he saw at the park.
Several council members responded to Cheatham’s concerns by commending his dedication to the community.
“Our parks are a major part of our infrastructure. Parks help hold neighborhoods together. My heart bleeds for Grove Park. This city has to do a better job by its parks,” Councilman Brian Grizzell said during the meeting.
Cheatham said he is hopeful this change in leadership will lead to a renewed focus and progress in the capital city. He said that since making a plea to the city council in July, he has seen some slight progress in the clean-up of Grove Park, but said issues remain. He added that he looks forward to returning to a time when people of all ages could swim, play tennis and golf at Grove Park.
“Grove Park has everything that a park could have. I shouldn’t have to go to another community to swim or play golf,” Cheatham said.
Correction: This story’s lede originally included a misspelling of Steve Hutton’s name. We apologize for the error.