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Hosemann Pins Water Blame on Jackson Leaders Since Last White Mayor; Harvey Johnson Factchecks

Delbert Hosemann and Harvey Johnson
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann has not spoken to state or city leadership about Jackson’s ongoing water crisis. But he laid the responsibility for the crisis on the shoulders of City of Jackson leadership dating back to Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., who responded with his own efforts to improve the city's water supply. Delbert Hosemann photo courtesy Delbert Hosemann. Harvey Johnson photo courtesy Jackson Free Press / Trip Burns

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann confirmed today that there are no top-level discussions between the City of Jackson, the State of Mississippi and legislative leadership to address the ongoing Jackson water crisis.

“I’ve received no contact from the city at all. No, I have not,” Hosemann told the Mississippi Free Press today about Jackson leadership outreach. Nor has he discussed Gov. Tate Reeves’ consideration of a state takeover of the capital city’s water system.

“I haven’t talked to the governor about that, either,” the northeast Jackson resident added. “Neither the governor nor the city have contacted us at all about any of that.”

As Mississippi’s capital city enters the third week of its ongoing water crisis, with many residents still struggling with low or no water pressure as the city administration crawls through a legion of burst water mains and potentially unsafe drinking water, it seems unlikely that any assistance is on its way from the Legislature this session. 

Though Hosemann acknowledged no active communication between leadership in the Legislature, the Governor’s Mansion and City Hall on the crisis, he professed deep concern over the water system’s state of disrepair long preceding the current winter-storm outages in late February.

The lieutenant governor read excerpts from a letter he said the City of Jackson sent to his home. 

“They say you can’t use the tap water for drinking … The two (points) that really struck me, Nick, (was) ‘baby formula should be prepared using only filter water or bottled water.’ Now what happens with a mom with a hungry baby when she doesn’t have bottled water? Even more dramatic to me—‘parents with children five years or younger should contact their children’s pediatrician or primary care provider to make sure that adequate lead screening or blood testing should be performed.’ Are they telling us that they’re poisoning our children with lead?”

‘The Prime Mover Needs to Be the City Itself’

In spite of the grave threats to public health detailed in the letter, Hosemann suggested that the Legislature was already taking the burdens of Jackson in other ways, including a pending Capitol Police takeover of misdemeanor arrests in certain parts of the city and an expansion to the court system to help prosecute them and reduce jail backlogs of pretrial detainees.

“We’re paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to start an addition to the actual judicial system in Hinds County,” Hosemann said. “(Hinds is) the only county where we’re doing that … They have cases going back to 1997. People are not getting tried, and people are dying. There’s murder in the streets here.”

In previous sessions, Republican lawmakers from outside Jackson have waged controversial efforts to take over the capital city’s airport and related businesses and real estate.

Kane Ditto speaking
Former Jackson Mayor Kane Ditto said administrations succeeding his were not “as concerned with” the routine repairs and significant projects necessary to keep the city’s water problems contained. Photo by Imani Khayyam/courtesy Jackson Free Press

Hosemann balked at the $1-billion price tag that Mayor Lumumba previously suggested would be necessary to wholly repair the city’s crumbling water infrastructure. But he also said it must be the City of Jackson that serves as the principal actor on any proposal to extract it from the current—and persisting—crisis.

“The prime mover needs to be the city itself. It’s the city of Jackson. Where do you start? What are the most complicated places? What’s your plan? How much money is it going to take, and how do you even pay for it? I haven’t seen any of that,” Hosemann said.

The lieutenant governor reflected fondly today to the Mississippi Free Press on a much earlier administration. “You remember during Kane Ditto’s administration, he did repair work on water and sewer. So what happened since then?”

Kane Ditto, who served as mayor of Jackson from 1989 to 1997 and as the last white mayor elected to the position, echoed some of Hosemann’s concerns to the Mississippi Free Press today, though he acknowledged that the enormity of the problem was beyond any individual administration.

“The administrations after ours were not as concerned with making the routine repairs plus the major infrastructure projects that it would take to fix both the water and the sewer system,” he said.  “It wouldn’t have been fixed by now even if we had continued on the path we’d set, but we would’ve made a good bit of progress,” Ditto said.

Johnson: ‘Kane Happened to Be the Last White Mayor’

Portrait of Mayor Harvey Johnson
Former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. asserted that his administration had completed significant water and sewage projects, adding that he “hoped” nostalgia for previous city leadership was not racially motivated. Photo courtesy City of Jackson

Harvey Johnson Jr., the capital city’s first Black mayor who succeeded Ditto and a bit of an infrastructure wonk, laughed openly today at Hosemann’s question about what’s happened since Ditto. 

“During my administration we spent over $200 million on water and sewer infrastructure improvements over 12 years,” Johnson told the Mississippi Free Press in an interview this afternoon.

“I don’t know what the impetus is behind all of this misinformation,” Johnson said. “I hope it’s not demographics. Kane happened to be the last white mayor that we had. I hope that these comments aren’t being tainted by who’s in the mayor’s office. If you would just peel back a little of the misinformation you would find that that’s absolutely not true.”

“In my administration we put up two new water storage tanks … we came from under an EPA-imposed consent decree on our oldest water treatment plant where it was discharging into the Pearl River. We were able to direct that. It cost $10 million to $12 million (just) to do that,” Johnson added, pointedly. 

“The answer to his inquiry is that a lot has been done.”

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