‘Absolute and total incompetence’: Governor slams mayor at turkey-pardoning ceremony

Says system will likely fail again once the city takes it over.
Published: Oct. 20, 2022 at 12:48 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Gov. Tate Reeves pardoned a turkey at a ceremony Thursday at the Governor’s Mansion, only moments later to turn a flamethrower on Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba.

The governor was no-holds-barred when asked about the city’s decision to issue its own request for proposals for water system manager this week, days after the state issued its own request for qualifications for a firm to take over management of Jackson’s water system.

“As long as the state, over the last 52 days, is doing little things to make sure the water system is operated, the mayor was perfectly fine with it,” he said. “But when it comes time to put your thumb on the scale for a contractor, just like he did in garbage... he decided, ‘Hey, not only do I want to have a seat at the table, I want control of this,’” he said.

“Because if you go back and look at the two documents that come out this week, 95 to 99 percent exactly the same. You know what’s different? Who chooses vendor. Who chooses the contractor.”

The governor’s comments are the latest in the very visible battle over the future of Jackson’s water.

The state took over operations of the city’s water treatment facilities in late August, after equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant cut out water service for tens of thousands of customers.

Reeves mobilized several agencies to take over water operations on August 29, to respond to what he says was the “absolute and total incompetence of this mayor and administration.”

“It led to the point that we were in a position in which it was clear that... there would be no running water in the city of Jackson,” he said. “In fact, there was a citywide boil water notice for 30 days prior to that.”

During that time, the National Guard and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency were deployed to deliver potable and non-potable water to citizens. Meanwhile, a team made up of officials from the MEMA and the Mississippi State Department of Health took over efforts to get the city’s main water plant back up and running.

“Literally within 72 hours, we had insured and restored water pressure throughout the system to the entire city of Jackson. Less than 15 days later, we were able to lift the boil water notice,” Reeves said.

“Running water systems isn’t that challenging. It’s not that difficult,” he added. “In fact, there are over 1,100 water systems in Mississippi. Over 19 years, I’ve made over 8.2 million decisions... only once have I have had to make a decision to sign an emergency proclamation to ensure that was delivered to the city.”

Reeves says the administration’s decision to issue its own RFP is a sign that the city is again ready to run the water system on its own, sans the state’s resources.

“What the EPA has said is they are evidently OK with that. They certainly have the opportunity, through a consent decree, to take over the water system... But the reality is that the emergency, the fact that the state has come in and run this water system, is nearing its end. We know that.”

Reeves signed the initial emergency declaration on August 30, a day after he announced the state was stepping in. The declaration was continued for another 30 days and is currently in place through the end or near the end of October.

He told the media he has not decided if the emergency declaration will be extended or if it will be lifted early.

The state’s request for qualifications is for a firm to operate and maintain the city’s two water treatment plants, its well water systems and water tanks for the next 12 months.

The city issued a similar request earlier this week. The mayor said in a statement that he would not go along with the state’s request, saying the city did not have a chance to look at it. Director of Communications Melissa Faith Payne said the city had to issue the request to include language recommended by the EPA.

Jackson is currently in talks with EPA and U.S. Department of Justice to discuss bringing its water system into compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act.

In both cases, the city would be responsible for paying the contract.

Reeves, though, is unsure anyone will even seek the opportunity to do the work.

“One of the reasons that there was a real challenge for the city to operate the plant in July and August, is because virtually every vendor in town who did anything around water treatment facilities... was unwilling to any work for the city. Why? Because they don’t get paid,” he said. “I have a great fear that there is no legitimate water operator that will be willing to work for the city. But time will tell.”

Reeves also questioned the mayor’s claims that he was not given a chance to review the document. “How on earth do we have a 65-page document that’s issued by the state on Monday and the city issues a similar document?” he asked. “And less than 48 hours later, the city issued virtually the same document... but they have not looked at it or seen it. That’s just not true.”

“I agree,” Reeves said, looking over toward Mrs. Wilhemina Wishbone, the turkey he had just pardoned, who gobbled.

The RFQ was issued last week. A copy of the roughly 200-page document can be found on MEMA’s website. The city issued its RFP earlier this week.

“I never would have taken over the water system to begin with, knowing that I had to deal with this mayor, but for the fact it was the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s not about politics.”

“I’m tired of the mayor playing politics. I’m tired of him going on national news and lying about the people of Mississippi,” he said. “Am I a little bit upset about it? Yes, I am, because he’s lying about the people of this state. I don’t care what he says about me. I’ve been in politics a long time, and I’m a big boy. I can handle it.”

City officials declined to comment.

EPA provided this statement:

“The people of Jackson, Mississippi, deserve access to clean and safe water, and EPA is committed to working with the City and State to make that a reality. As our response efforts shift from managing the immediate emergency caused by the Pearl River flooding to developing a near- and long-term plan for Jackson’s water system, identifying mechanisms to provide ongoing support to the water system remains a top priority. We will continue to work with local and state authorities as they identify and implement the necessary resources for operation and maintenance while continuing our efforts to sustain and protect the water system. EPA will not rest until Jackson residents have the reliable water infrastructure they need and deserve.”

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