Perhaps one of the more interesting parts of former mayor Sam Jones’ announcement last week that he’s running to get his old job back was the conversation Greater Nazaree Baptist Church Pastor James Parrish relayed to build excitement for his candidate.
In the conversation, a friend quizzed the pastor about his support for a second Jones tenure in City Hall.
“I told him Sam Jones would improve our parks and recreation facilities for all communities. He said, ‘How do you know?’ He did it before. I told him Sam Jones would strengthen and develop his infrastructure and make sure that our roads are better and that he would strengthen and support the drainage and make sure we have a good drainage system. He said, ‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘He did it before.’”
No offense to the good pastor and his inquisitive friend, but the one thing Sam Jones probably doesn’t want to run on is “He did it before.” “He did it before” is what hangs around his neck like an anvil. “He did it before” is the biggest reason Jones faces long odds in trying to get his old job back.
The Jones campaign fired out of the blocks this week with a message that in essence was simply an appeal to the black majority in this city to elect a black mayor again. In particular a black mayor named Sam Jones. There was no real story about exactly how Jones would make things better for the black community and there was certainly zero effort to reach out to the 48 percent of non-black people who call Mobile home.
Sam quickly established he doesn’t care about being the mayor for white, Asian or Hispanic Mobilians. But if he hopes to regain the mayor’s seat simply by virtue of being a member of the city’s largest ethnic group, Jones might also have to start explaining why he hung the people who put him in office out to dry during his last tenure.
It would be easy to start going through Silent Sam’s two terms as mayor and point out the massive increases in positions at the city, the dereliction of duty when it came to the city’s infrastructure, and the secretive and damaging way in which he wielded power. But rather than go through all that right now, it might be best to look at one particular area that best exemplifies how little Jones cared for members of the very community he now expects to put him back in office — the Mobile Housing Board.
During his tenure Jones allowed this city’s public housing to disintegrate to such a degree that much of it looked like it belonged in the Third World. His willful disregard for those housing projects and their overwhelmingly African-American residents no doubt played a big role in his loss four years ago.
As anyone who has been paying attention knows, Mobile Housing Board is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General. OIG blistered MHB last year in a report questioning the way the organization has been run, especially as it relates to a supposed nonprofit arm called Mobile Development Enterprises. While the OIG letter came during Stimpson’s tenure, the troubles at MHB belong to Jones and his political cronies.
MHB’s board was chaired by Clarence Ball for 25 years, including the entire time Jones was in office. Ball has routinely been one of Jones’ bigger financial contributors and even hired the ex-mayor after he left office. Ball’s son is running Jones’ current campaign. So they’re close.
While the mayor doesn’t have direct authority over the day-to-day operation of MHB, the way in which he does have power is in board appointments. During his eight years in office, Jones left in place Ball and others who oversaw the decline of public housing in Mobile. Not only did he not replace them, Jones didn’t even bother to reappoint them when their terms on the board were up. He just let things hang in limbo — until he lost the election. Then he made three appointments to the five-member board, including filling a position he’d left vacant more than a year. The two members he reappointed had each been on the board more than 20 years and re-upping their terms meant they would stay on the board throughout Stimpson’s first term.
The result was keeping Jones cronies in control of MHB until last year. Only because board vice president Donald Langham suddenly resigned just before the OIG report came down was Stimpson able to have enough of his own appointees on the board to start some house cleaning.
MHB has been a mess. Stimpson’s appointees to the board finally got rid of the flim-flam man Ball and Langham had hired as director, Dwayne Vaughn. One of Vaughn’s major sins had been to continue pushing the fiction that Mobile Development Enterprises was an entity separate from MHB — even though MDE employees worked at Housing Board desks, answered Housing Board phones and were paid through Housing Board accounts.
So far already OIG has peeled through this “nonprofit” that appeared primarily designed to allow the Housing Board to circumvent the county’s Personnel Board and also seems to have existed to make some unusual business deals. State Rep. Adline Clarke — who Jones helped get elected — also served as MDE’s vice president, and one of the things the OIG report questioned was a conflict of interest in $1.2 million in contracts her brother’s company, Superior Masonry, received through MDE. Now HUD is requiring the Housing Board to pay that money back.
Sam Jones’ influence over the Mobile Housing Board can’t be understated. His buddy and now employer ran the board and Jones never made any moves to clean up the problems. As most of the board members’ terms were expired when he took office, Jones could have replaced them. He didn’t. Then he let them stay eight more years and watched as they closed Josephine Allen without consulting HUD, costing MHB millions. He just watched as Roger Williams became a burned-out shell of what it had once been, where the remaining residents lived in squalor.
Keeping his political cronies happy and in control of the jobs and the money was far more important to Sam than making sure Mobile’s public housing wasn’t a travesty.
So why would black voters who watched all that happen want to put “Same Jones” back in so he can load MHB back up with his buddies?
“How do you know he’d do it all over again?” you might ask.
He did it before.
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