Four years ago a rap group known as 3UnbornSoulz captured the city’s attention with their monster political hit “Sam Who? Sam Jones!” just as the mayoral campaign between Jones and Sandy Stimpson was heating up.
Perhaps unintentionally the 3UnbornSoulz were asking a question a lot of Mobilians hadn’t really given much consideration. Sure, Jones had served for years on the County Commission, but “Silent Sam” never made much noise there. He swept into office on the recommendations of then-still-popular outgoing Mayor Mike Dow and the then-still-important Press-Register. Both assured the electorate Jones was the man.
Sam Who indeed!
I noticed some issues right away when I interviewed him about a strange fundraiser that took place on his behalf in Pennsylvania. Jones was evasive and when I called people on the donors list, some said they had no idea what fundraiser I was talking about. So my antennae went up.
Over the years things kind of devolved. The Press-Register editorial board was still portraying him as the affable Teddy Bear they called Sam “Love” Jones, but those of us covering the mayor’s office noticed it was harder and harder to get a straight answer about anything — especially if you asked a tough question. But nobody bothered to run against him, so Jones skated back into office.
Over the second four years, though, things deteriorated. There were City Council members who claimed they weren’t allowed to see financial data. There were secret deals and embarrassing personnel issues at MPD. It seemed like there was constant turmoil, especially when it came to finances. The mayor always needed more money and played hardball when it came to getting it.
When it came time for re-election, Jones showed his true stripes in a couple of nasty debates during which he expressed derision for people who lived in parts of the city different from his own neighborhood.
Mr. Jones has been practically invisible for the past four years — except for his involvement in a rancorous effort to get a paying gig on the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System Board. Since then he’s been quiet as a church mouse.
His campaign, like last time, seems primarily focused on stirring racial acrimony and offering constituents the false promise that because he shares their ethnicity he will do something superior for them. The only problem with that tack is he didn’t do it before. Lots of people remember that.
Mass hypnosis appears to be the magical part of this bizarre political campaign. Sam thinks by simply telling people things were better when he ran the show they’ll believe it, especially young people who never voted before. To read his campaign’s Facebook posts, Jones was an astoundingly honest, forthcoming, creative and intellectual mayor who was defeated by some white men who paid blues players to hand out fish sticks.
But that’s not reality. Jones was hardly an honest, scandal-free and transparent mayor, and the people he mostly seemed to take care of were friends, relatives and political cronies.
Maybe for those who have forgotten, or were too young to have paid attention, a short primer of Sam Jones’ greatest hits is in order. He wants to say his administration was scandal-free and successful, but let the record speak for itself. Consider these things:
• The Mobile Housing Board. Chaired by Jones’ biggest political supporter and current boss, Clarence Ball, this board not only let much of its housing stock deteriorate into Third World condition on Jones’ watch, the fiscal mismanagement and sweetheart deals have led to federal investigations. HUD’s Office of Inspector General nailed MHB with a $1.2 million conflict of interest payback of funds paid to an employee’s siblings. The report also hammered MHB for improper usage of a supposedly independent nonprofit organization. HUD pointed out that from 2009-2013, MHB failed to rehab 1,192 family units and allowed more than 800 units to remain vacant for as long as 16 years.
• The Police Explorers Scandal. The Police Explorers, a program designed to introduce young people to police work, became a runaway slush fund for snow-skiing trips attended by police, city employees and their families. Jones and MPD ignored the misuse of funds and worked hard to keep this newspaper and the public from seeing who went on those trips. Jones repeatedly sent city attorneys to court try to keep Lagniappe from getting some 6,000 pages of documents pertaining to the trips.
• Hank Aaron Stadium. The Mobile BayBears didn’t pay rent at The Hank for more than three years, running up a nearly $820,000 bill. The mayor kept this information secret from the City Council, and when it finally came to light, Jones’ brilliant plan allowed the team to make roughly $500,000 in repairs to the stadium over six years instead of paying the back rent, costing the city hundreds of thousands.
• BayFest. Under Jones the city’s three-day music festival was allowed to run itself into the ground financially even as the city continued pouring more money into it. Without a $3.38 million infusion of BP money the festival would have died a few years sooner. During the last three years of Jones’ administration, the festival lost roughly $400,000, $400,000 and $1.1 million, respectively.
• BayFest organizers pulled off another slightly losing year in 2014 then abruptly canceled the 2015 show just a few weeks before it was to go on, claiming they were out of money. Still, Jones has said restarting BayFest would be a major initiative if he’s re-elected.
• The Gulf Coast Classic. For 34 years, Alabama State University was paid $40,000 to play one of its home games at Ladd-Peebles Stadium against another traditionally African-American college. In 2008 Jones decided to make the game a “true classic,” ultimately getting $275,000 worth of taxpayer money to fund a series that lasted one year. The teams never got paid what Jones promised and the following year the deal fell apart, killing the Gulf Coast Classic.
• Carnival. Under Jones, Carnival Cruise Lines pulled out of Mobile, leaving the city holding the bag for roughly $3 million a year in annual debt service on a cruise ship terminal that sat empty for four years. Stimpson was able to get a commitment from Carnival to return after a little more than a year in office.
• Investigation of campaign funds. In the last election an investigation by this newspaper was able to prove Jones was using political donations to pay a tenant’s power bill at a building he owns and buying personal items for campaign employees. Jones and some campaign employees were forced to pay back $9,300 in misspent political funds.
• Fiscal mismanagement. When Jones took office the city of Mobile had just below $168 million in debt. By the time he left eight years later the debt had skyrocketed to just a hair below $300 million. His last year in office the city ran $29 million in the red, even though he’s continued claiming it didn’t.
There’s much more, but you get the gist. Really, when you look over what happened during his eight years and contemplate a return to Jones-style management, the only question this unborn soul can ask is, “Sam Why?”