Loading

A Sense of Urgency: Sen. John Horhn Pledges to Cure What Ails City Hall

This time around, mayoral candidate John Horhn is talking a lot about evidence-based crime prevention.

This time around, mayoral candidate John Horhn is talking a lot about evidence-based crime prevention. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Sen. John Horhn may have been in the Mississippi Legislature for 24 years, but the Jackson man doesn't always get what he wants.

He wants the Mississippi flag changed. He wants the new Republican supermajority at the Capitol to backtrack on their efforts to cut, cut, cut taxes, even endangering the state's roads and bridges. He wants lawmakers there to vote to pay the State's fair share for infrastructure right here in the City where they make the laws, even as many state offices, nonprofits and churches do not produce enough taxes to keep the streets between the Governor's Mansion and the Capitol in good shape.

Last year, Horhn stood up with other Democrats, black and white, from Jackson to try to stop a sudden Republican takeover of the Jackson airport, led by a fellow senator who owns property across the road from the facility's lucrative footprint.

"We haven't even looked at whether there is any real need for the change in governance," Horhn told a Senate determined to take over the airport last April. "It's just the decision of a few individuals, and it's come down on partisan lines that we are going to change the governance of the airport."

Like many of the issues important to Mississippi's majority-black and overwhelmingly progressive capital city, pleas to not steal our airport fell on deaf ears. Horhn now hopes the courts will give it back to the city. And since he helped convince the Legislature to fund a $500,000 BOTEC study on Jackson crime—a flimsy compromise when he wanted $10 million for the city—he talks much more about preventing crime with evidence-based solutions than he did during his first two runs for mayor.

Horhn is running for mayor for the third time, vowing to use his contacts at the Capitol to get more done for Jackson. Even if they do not always agree with him, he argues that he is the candidate they know, and perhaps respect, more than the other nine he is running against. Besides, he says, he has been a part of numerous financial negotiations that have brought the city half a billion dollars during his tenure, and he knows how to play the game up there.

Here in Jackson, Horhn's message is about urgency, especially over hiring qualified people and getting the City organized, both to improve quality of life for residents and to rebuild a sluggish business climate.

Horhn spoke to the Jackson Free Press in our office's Zen Den in late February.

Talk about your vision for this city. What does it look like, from a big standpoint, and has it evolved or changed at all?

Well, you know, I think that Jackson is an exciting city and has a great deal of potential. What I see in Jackson is a place that has a strong and vibrant cultural and entertainment district, it has a downtown that is full of people who live there, and every neighborhood, every sector of the city has viability and attractiveness. The big picture: We've got to do more to deal with health care as an economic-development catalyst. We've got to forge a stronger partnership between the city and the state. We've got to forge a better relationship between the city and the business community.

There is a disconnect there, and one of the first things we've got to do is stop the bleeding. We are still hemorrhaging a number of businesses on a weekly basis that are leaving Jackson. (We must put) a plan in place to retain those businesses and that also makes us attractive in the development of new business.

photo

John Horhn and his wife, Lydia Gail Horhn, have been married for 31 years. Photo John Horhn

I think that what is vital to our growth and development is a strong public education system. We've got to do a lot of work with Jackson Public Schools, in particular.

What are your first priorities if elected?

Deal with our infrastructure, and this is not only street resurfacing, but it's also in planning and the development of a solution to our water and wastewater programs. We don't have a cohesive plan that's in place right now, and so that's number one.

Number two is that we've got to get a handle on crime, and we've got too much of a revolving door that goes on in our criminal-justice system where people who are caught for crimes wind up being bailed out, and a lot of them commit those same crimes over and over again. There are ways to stop it that have been put forth in different plans that we've been made privy to that only need implementation.

What's an example?

There's the Violence Reduction Network ... through the Department of Justice (that Jackson joined) in August. It sounds like they're finally getting at least the first steps going forward to put a plan together.

But the biggest issue with Jackson is that there is no sense of urgency about solving a lot of the problems. It's not just one administration that's been like that; numerous administrations have deferred a lot of maintenance, deferred decision making, deferred making the hard decisions that have to be made to keep the city a viable enterprise. We've got to have someone in (as mayor) who is going to take action quickly with a strategic plan and then, once that plan is developed, to move very quickly in its implementation.

Give me an example things that you would do very quickly that are different from what's being done right now.

Well, the very first thing is have an independent audit of the city's finances. Find out exactly where we are. The second thing is we have to quickly move to put a strategic plan together (to best use) sales tax, state money available that we're not accessing right now, and federal money that's available. We have to quickly close out some federal grants that are open and preventing us from drawing down federal dollars that have our name on them in Washington right now. There is no urgency to close one thing out in order to begin another thing, and part of that malaise, if you will, is how we're dealing with many of our federal grants.

Another example of that is the Violence Reduction Network. ... We've got a very serious violent crime program in Jackson. ... We really need to put a case-management system in place (for) how we're dealing with the adjudication of people who have been charged with crimes. Right now it is not consolidated so a lot of things fall between the cracks.

What is holding that up now?

We need the technology first, and we have cases being, I'm told, kept in cardboard boxes. There is one antiquated system some cases are on, there's another system that other cases are on. We need to consolidate that technology, and I think the money is available through the Violence Reduction Network for us to be able to pay for that.

Then we need a means of increasing accountability of the persons who are charged with adjudicating those cases through the system. It's easy for someone to fall through the cracks and wind up not being indicted for a year. It's not just one or two cases ... (like) the assailant the first week of January who carjacked an individual, and he also shot him. The gentleman who was shot was wearing a crucifix, and the bullet ricocheted off his crucifix and went into his arm instead of his heart ... saved his life. The assailant was out on bond for committing the exact same crime a year earlier, and his case had not been brought to trial. We've got to expeditiously deal with bringing and moving those cases through the court system.

So you're saying that if prosecutors had dealt with the earlier case sooner, he wouldn't still be out on bond and able to commit the same crime again.

We wouldn't have had the second case probably, and so what I'm saying is we need to bring these cases to trial quicker and get them processed through the system quicker. What we see happening is a lot of delays, and there are no requirements, there are no mandates on the part of the prosecutors to run those cases through a lot more expeditiously. We need some sort of a case management system that deals with accountability of getting those cases pushed through.

How can the mayor do that, though? You wouldn't control prosecutors and courts.

There's only a bully pulpit that the mayor has, and I think that getting the citizens involved and informing them about what is really happening in our system is a big part of it. That case management issue was brought out in the BOTEC (Jackson crime) study that you're familiar with, and (the disorganized county prosecution and court system) was pointed out as one of the biggest problems that can help us deal with the elimination or reduction of crime, especially violent crime.

I hear you on the DA's role. Those situations often get blamed on the police. But what needs to improve in the police's role in crime-fighting?

The police department is doing a very good job of catching criminals. The problem is that when you get into the adjudication process, it can sometimes become a revolving door where there is no accountability on getting those cases processed quickly. Someone has to deal with overcrowding in our jails in terms of why people get bailed out again and again. The mayor can only be an advocate for public safety as it relates to the court system, but I think that if we better educate our citizens about what's going on, I think that they will begin to demand that there be more accountability in our criminal justice system.

At the recent Violence Reduction Network conversation at City Hall, police chief said JPD can't really identify who is most likely to commit violent crimes, and if they did, what could the police actually do. What do you think about that?

The BOTEC study talked about early warning signs that this person may have a proclivity to go into a life of crime using different indicators that are tested and proven to be good indicators. We provided that information to the public-school system and did not get a good response from them, but I would think that with a new superintendent and administration, we will get a better response, because at the end of the day, we don't want to have an education system that breeds future criminals. We want to do the exact opposite, and that has a lot to do with the quality of education we're providing those kids.

photo

Sen. John Horhn is relying heavily on the meme of rebuilding trust in Jackson government.

In terms of criminal activity, there is technology out there, and the funding can come from this Violence Reduction Network at the Department of Justice, that can detect from a central place at JPD or wherever. When a gunshot goes off, it can tell you within 3 feet of where that shot was fired and with that kind of response time, you can get a unit to that spot a lot faster than they are able to come right now. That's one way to deter use of firearms in our city.

Re-entry programs should be available and focusing on what do we do for the individual who's paid his debt to society, wants to turn his life around, but finds that having that felony charge on his record prevents him from getting a job. There's very little or no training available to him, he's released from Parchman or wherever he is with very few resources, and he goes back to the same environment where he committed his earlier crimes.

It's a vicious cycle, often leading to worse crime.

That cycle has got to be stopped, and I know you are aware of Cure Violence as one of the things we can do to curb criminal activity and hopefully violent activity as well, where we use those ex-felons and get them busy in the business of preventing other folks who may be in line or on their way to a life of crime. That way you are giving the ex-felons something to do, but you're also hopefully preventing someone else from falling into a negative path.

Now we've got to also do a lot more in this region of reforming how employers look at ex-felons and how they regard the hiring of someone who's got a criminal record. I'm a big advocate for "ban the box"; I introduced it at the Legislature this year to do that. We have one bill I think that is coming from the House that will allow us to do that. It gives an applicant an opportunity to get through the application process, and if the people who are doing the screening and hiring like what they see at that point, when they're sitting down for a serious interview, they can ask that question. But not right off the bat where he would be eliminated off the bat.

I'm very worried that Continental Tires is not going to be the panacea and the big solution for job creation that it's being touted to be for Hinds County, because we have a disproportionate number of our citizens who have had some sort of interaction with law enforcement, to the point where they've gotten a felony. So unless we address that with Continental, they may be eliminated right off the bat from any consideration for hiring.

It's feels like a riddle. BOTEC showed that one of the top two indicators for young people committing worse crime is contact with the criminal system. It kind of feels like all these preventive options need to happen at once to combine to curb crime. How do you do that and pay for something like Cure Violence? It's expensive.

That's a question that needs to be put to the Violence Reduction Network. They have program funds, so if we're trying to reduce violence, why wouldn't they provide support for a Cure Violence program? Why wouldn't they do gunshot detection technology and equipment? Why wouldn't they give us extra manpower and resources to go after the areas of the city where there have been determined to be crime hotspots, which the BOTEC study produced? They did a criminal hotspot mapping system that showed the areas of the city where these criminal actions are taking place, by and large. The response by the police should be to go to those areas and take action and try to reduce and clean up some of that crime and violence.

We know crime can slow economic development, but yet you need good economic development to help do something about crime, because you need the money to be able to afford things, right?

To create jobs and opportunity.

Exactly, to help reduce crime. But it looks like you keep running into brick walls up there as a long-time senator. So how do you get further on some of these issues as the mayor?

Right, so let me first say that every major project over the last 24 years that has taken place in the City of Jackson has taken place with funding from the State or enabling legislation ... resources have come from the State of over a half billion dollars. ... I certainly would be a proponent that we need more, but the State has been the primary source for development in the City of Jackson for the past 24 years. For example, we did $20 million for the JSU metro parkway, we got that from the state. The City and (Hinds) County chipped in $6 million for the road. But that $20 million came from the state. We did the TelCom Center, $17.5 million ... that money came from the state. The state produced a 1-cent sales tax to fund the construction for the convention center. We did $6 million for the Farish Street loan program.

Of course, we passed that in 1999, and the money's been spent by the locals, but we haven't gotten the end result we wanted, but we also did $20 million that was loaned to the county by the state for the Westin Hotel. We did another $280-million authorization through the 1-cent sales tax to enable the City of Jackson to address a lot of its infrastructure. So the state has really been standing in the gap for the city for a lot longer than the people realize.

With this next effort with the Capitol City complex and infrastructure fund, we want the State to finally take responsibility, direct responsibility, for a lot of the infrastructure around this $5.6 billion worth of real estate in state-owned buildings that are not subject to taxation. ...

So what can you do as mayor for economic development?

We've got to really do a restructuring of how we go about the business of economic development in Jackson. The City right now does not have a strong program on business retention. It doesn't have a strong program on business attraction. And so we've got to re-tool our incentive program, our building-permit site review, building and planning development—because it's not business-friendly right now. ... We've got to do it in very quick fashion where we create a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to do development in Jackson rather than having them run around to this place here, that department there, this street here to get their fire inspections, to get their building code inspections, to get their site review. Site reviews can't happen just once a month, which is pretty much the case right now, so if a developer gets something wrong on the site review, he's politely told he has to come back in 30 days to have it re-examined.

We need to have the same kind of urgency of getting business expanded or attracted here that they have in other parts of the metro area. You can get a lot of these same things done in a few days in Ridgeland or Madison or Flowood that may take months or even, I've heard in some cases, years for folks to do it in Jackson. Shreveport (La.) is able to get done the kinds of things I'm talking about in 10 days or less, and that would be my goal.

And I don't want to restrict discussions about what's happening to just downtown. Someone needs to wake up every morning thinking about development in south Jackson, about the health-care corridor, about how we can leverage downtown for residential development or for retail and commercial. I see it more as a team of folks who come together and create a strategic plan, because right now what's happening is kind of organic. It is not something that is the result of any specific master plan that the city has. It's about what developer can get its project in the ground the quickest. We need to sit down with the development community to put together with the city fathers and the development community a strategic plan on what we want the city to look like over the years, of course, with citizen input.

And it has to factor in housing, because our housing stock in Jackson is very old, and there's a role for the development community to play in improving our housing stock, making it high-quality and affordable as well as increasing our ability to attract market-rate housing.

We don't have a lot of market-rate housing being developed in Jackson right now. Most people are looking at the suburban areas when you're talking about upscale housing, except what's already been developed in Jackson. So a lot of what's been developed that's high-end is very hard to get into because people have made their minds up that they're staying there, and nobody is building any additional high-end housing. But I think that there's a big role for that sort of thing in downtown Jackson and other parts of the city.

How can you be sure people who are working in development inside the city don't have conflicts and that contracting is ethical and transparent.

There's got to be transparency, and a rigid line between someone who's an employer versus someone who has an interest in some development that the City is trying to assist with. There has to be a very fine line drawn that's a distinction between the two, because you don't want to get into any gray areas, and you don't want to bring up any or have even the appearance of ethical violations go on.

photo

Sen. John Horhn talks proudly and openly about white support as well as black. Photo courtesy John Horhn

I believe that we have too many contracts that the city engages in. I think that one of the things that we need to do is—and this is a job-creation opportunity also—is have the Public Works department become beefed up again with personnel. They are at half-staff right now. And so a lot of the repair work that is being done by contractors at a premium could be done by city employees, and we could create jobs as a result of that. A lot of the contractors bring their workers in from outside Jackson, and there's not a whole lot of benefit to that.

One of the selling points of the 1-cent sales tax was that we were going to hire and train a lot of Jacksonians for the jobs of fixing the infrastructure, and that has not happened so far. In fact, we have not spent a lot of money from the 1-cent sales tax like people thought we would be at this point. We passed it six years ago, and we're only just now getting into the swing of things of using the 1-cent sales tax, and I have some disagreements with how we have used the money, and how we are using the money.

What we are told in the Legislature was the city planned as quickly as possible to issue bonds for the infrastructure to get $90 million to $150 million on the streets as quickly as possible and to use the proceeds from the 1-cent sales tax to satisfy the debt. What we thought was that 10-year bonds would be the best way to go because if you extend them out much longer you're still paying for roads that have to be resurfaced 15 years out. So, a 10-year bond seemed to be the best way to go, and yet that didn't happen right away.

Now we're here, and they're talking about doing a bond authorization, but our bond rating is not what it was six years ago, and the money is going to be more expensive. ... If you get a good public-works director where 60 percent of the city's money is dedicated to public works, we need to get someone in who really knows what they're doing and who can build an interior team of folks with capabilities and capacity to get as much work done in-house as possible and then where we have some shortcomings, go out of house to do outside contracting.

How would you guarantee voters that we're not going to see some of the same back and forth over campaign supporters wanting contracts like we've watched recently?

I ran the governor's Office of Federal State Programs under Governor (Ray) Mabus. I ran the Division of Tourism under Governor Mabus and under Governor (Kirk) Fordice, where we went out for contracts. There was never impropriety in terms of how we dealt with contracts. It was about lowest and best bids, and it was about getting the best entity selected to do the work, and that's what the bottom line should be on any contract. It shouldn't be about friendship or political contributions or some sort of a prior relationship.

The City has a website that is supposed to help with transparency. Only problem is, every citizen can't access it, although we're told that they can. ... But if people want to see what the contract looks like, who got the contract, how the selection process went on, that has to be a very transparent process, and I would be open to a citizen review committee that would be put in place to examine any questions that come up.

Would that apply to subcontracting, too? A lot of stuff hides in there, I think.

Yeah, and that's a very good question. I think that we would give them the latitude to look at subcontracts as well as the major contracts. We've got to put a better system in place to deal with the issue of minority participation. That's where things often get dicey where someone puts someone on their team who may not have all the capacity and skillset that they need.

We could find qualified subcontractors and minority contractors to do the work, but what we're seeing right now is an uneven representation of qualified versus unqualified of people who are in a position to get subcontracts. We need to make sure that anybody who's getting resources from the City is being paid for a service or a good that they can provide.

What do you think about the One Lake project?

I'm excited about One Lake. I think that it can help to make Jackson a real destination. Most of the developable land that is in the One Lake plan is on the Jackson side of the Pearl River. We're right now entertaining legislation that would allow a fee structure to be put in place that would be based on that developable land and charging fees to those property owners based on how developable their land is. If it's not as developable as another piece, then you don't get charged the same fees that the developable land is charged. So that's essentially what the legislation is doing in this session.

We've gotten a $200-million authorization from Congress, thanks to Senator (Thad) Cochran and Senator (Roger) Wicker and Congressman (Bennie) Thompson and Congressman (Gregg) Harper. We've got to find a way to raise $100 million from local and state sources. Some of it will have to be bonded by the state, and some of it will have to be born by the locals in those fee assessments.

One of our concerns about past proposed lake projects was whether people were involved with them had conflicts of interest or could financially benefit.

Yeah, so I think we've got to be very careful about that. Everything I've seen about the One Lake project seems to pass the smell test. We have a great opportunity with Town Creek to get development as the result of One Lake into downtown Jackson by doing some work on Town Creek. But as far as the conflicts of interest are concerned, I have not heard anything recently that might indicate that there are potential conflicts.

We'll look at it again, and you'll hear if there are, so ... (laughs). You've long been a liaison between the City and the Legislature. It feels like it's getting tougher up there with the new supermajority. How will you be able to be the mayor of Jackson and get the things you want out of this Legislature?

No one in this race has a better relationship with the state or the federal government than I. I understand the federal procurement process. (The City) has procured projects and resources and money from the state in tough times. In my opinion, we've always had a tough time as the City of Jackson trying to get anything out of the Legislature. Before, it was with conservative Democrats; now it's with conservative Republicans. Folks will just change parties, but the sentiment existed even during those tough times when we were working with conservative Democrats, and so we don't feel any more difficulty in procuring resources out of this Legislature with the super Republican majority than at any other time.

Except for one thing, and that is ... the element of the Legislature that does not want to address the issue of taxes except when it comes to reducing taxes on businesses and manufacturers. That sentiment is going to affect the state's budget, and it could affect whether we're able to get any sales tax revenue diverted from the state general fund to the capital city for infrastructure purposes. There is that difficulty. It's not so much that they're hating on Jackson any more than they always have; it's just that the resources are tighter, and we're not as high a priority perhaps as some other things might be.

What about people who say you've managed to get at least get some things done for Jackson, and they're afraid for you to leave the Legislature?

I won't lose those relationships in the position of mayor; in fact, it will enhance my relationship with a lot of them because what I hear from my colleagues there is that they want someone that they have a relationship with. They want someone they believe can do a good job managing the resources the city is given, and there is a strong sentiment about that.

I mean, let's face it, just about every project the city has been given by the Legislature has been not done as expeditiously as some people would like. There is the feeling that we take our own sweet time in getting things done, and my sense is that, and I think the average Jacksonian's sense of frustration is, what are we waiting for? We've got to get busy getting these problems solved, and my colleagues in the Legislature know and see me as a problem-solver, and I think that it will enhance my ability go get resources from the State. ... I met with the heads of the Department of Human Services, Employment Security, Mississippi Development Authority. They said, "John, we're just waiting for you to get over there, because we could help bring some things to Jackson." But there's no relationship with the existing leadership (of Jackson).

Talk about the Jackson airport. What needs to happen next?

We fought hard to leave the airport as it was first developed where Jackson has control of the airport; I believe Jackson should maintain control of the airport. We fought that battle, we lost in the Legislature, now it's being fought in the courts, and we're hoping that the federal judge will make the right decision. I think we're looking for an October decision from the federal judge.

I've heard people say that you have a lot of white support—a campaign monster in our City.

You can't get anything done in the Legislature if you don't have an ability to work across party lines, racial lines, regional lines. I've been able to do very well in those kinds of scenarios to get resources back to the capital city, and I'm proud of the fact when people see me, they see me, whether they're black or white, as someone who gets results. And whether you're black or white, Republican or Democrat, those potholes out there on that street don't care.

We've got to get beyond our racial, regional and political divides to save this capital city because it's the living room to Mississippi to the state. It's our front door, it is the place where businesses, whether they're coming to Tupelo or to Gulfport, come first if they're coming from outside of the state, and we want the capital city to be something that we're all proud of. So not just in the mayor's race, but in my Senate campaigns, I've always had support from a variety of sources.

The business community has been a very good source of support for me, and I'm not embarrassed by that, and I don't run from that, because the fact of the matter is we have to have the involvement of the business community if we're going to stay in Jackson. If we're going to turn the city around, there's got to be engagement by every sector of the community, and that includes the business community.

In past years, donations from certain people might not have shown up on campaign-finance reports. I must ask if you plan to be transparent in reporting your campaign finances, no matter who your support is?

Absolutely. We're very proud of our campaign-finance contributions and supporters and, quite frankly, the largest contributors I have in this campaign are African American or persons of color, as far as my larger donors are concerned. That will be reflected on our campaign-finance reports.

Many candidates have sat in here and said they'd run the City better, but the rubber meets the road in the hiring and management of people. What do you plan to ensure good work actually happens?

Well, no one person can solve the problems of Jackson, and the way we're going to win this is we've got to put a good team together. In my campaign, I've got a team of folks, and we're getting out and we're talking to as many citizens of Jackson, knocking on as many doors as we can. But once we become mayor, we've got to put an excellent team together of decision makers who have expertise, who have experience, in these critical positions.

Not to knock the current administration, but we have an interim public works director, we have an interim CAO, we have an interim CFO, we have an interim head of economic development, an interim head of the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, and so we need to put a good team together. That team will become the lifeblood of the administration, and that team will use the resources that are brought to bear by the development community, by the faith-based community, by the nonprofit community, and we've got to get all these resources, these assets that we have in Jackson working together.

Will it be easy? No,. But the very first step in getting there is making sure you've got the right leadership at the top.

The municipal primaries are May 2, with needed runoffs on May 16. The general election is June 6. Read more candidate interviews at jfp.ms/election2017.

John Horhn

Born: Goodman, Miss., on Feb. 8, 1955

Education: Centre College of Kentucky, Bachelor's degrees in Dramatic Arts and English Literature, 1977

Elected Office: Mississippi Senate, District 26, since 1994, Democrat

Job: Business Development Consultant

Family: Wife Lydia Gail Horhn, 31 years; son Siraj Horhn, 31; daughter Charla Horhn, 25


comments powered by Disqus