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OUR VIEW: Why no introspection on causes of HUD trouble over Farish St.?

OurViewRaise your hand if you are surprised by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s conclusion that redevelopment of downtown’s Farish Street has been the least of Jackson City Hall’s concerns the last decade and a half.

Seeing no hands, let us proceed.

Cause-and-effect is a good place to start. Remarkable indifference, professional carelessness and unaccountability are going to cost City Hall — or just maybe the ungoverned Jackson Redevelopment Authority — $1.5 million. It’s money HUD paid from 1998 to 2002 for the properties that make up the now-dead Farish Street project.

Having concluded city officials violated HUD rules in taking the money and in the following years let the JRA ignore rules with the Farish project, HUD wants its money back.

The Jackson Redevelopment Authority wants to cover the repayment – not out of contrition but purely as a cost of doing business.

HUD, you see, has suspended the Authority from all involvement with HUD-related projects until further notice. The JRA presumes paying HUD gets the suspension lifted. Maybe so, but in the meantime other redevelopment needs must go unmet.

It’s been more than 20 days since HUD put the hammer down in an 18-page “monitoring” letter. Nothing has come from Mayor Tony Yarber and aldermen to signal to the people they serve that they will get serious about oversight of the Jackson Redevelopment Authority.

Likewise with the JRA governing board. In a Sept. 25 meeting that marked their first convening since the HUD repayment demand, board members made no mention of how they can become more accountable. The concern instead was how to reopen the HUD money pipeline.

Nor did either City Hall or the JRA voice concern the Farish blunders could be just the first of deeper troubles with other bungled projects. A Jackson convention hotel, perhaps?

One alderman said in an interview with the MBJ that City Hall can’t go pointing fingers at the JRA without three fingers pointing back at it.

Well, yes.

Here’s why: City officials wanted to transform a several-block portion of downtown’s historic Farish Street into an entertainment destination. They turned the job over to the highly insulated, non-transparent JRA.

The City established the JRA in 1968 to guide Jackson toward rejuvenation but over the decades let it become a closed shop long on secrecy and short on accountability. While Jackson city officials looked the other way, the JRA’s hired staff led the agency’s governing board into decisions it should have never made. From the first days of the Farish Street project, neither attorneys for the City nor the JRA bothered to do the routine legal work that would have qualified the JRA as a sub-grantee of the City.

That seriously flawed effort set the stage for troubles to come. In the years that followed, lawyers for the JRA remained silent about obligations to HUD – at least in the advice they gave the board in open session. Lawyers at City Hall were equally mute about adhering to HUD rules.

Having decided to phase out the services of Zach Taylor of Jones Walker after two decades, the JRA has filled the general counsel position with the promotion of longtime former associate counsel Pernila “Penny” Stimley-Brown. It also has removed the “interim” from the director title of Willie Mott, who returned to the JRA as interim director in late 2012 after serving in the post from 1996 to 2006.

In neither case did the board search beyond its board room. This looks to be more business-as-usual and reflects a lack of energy and desire to find the best qualified people for the two very important posts.

Instead of results, the handling of the Farish Street redevelopment by City Hall and the JRA has brought Jackson an erosion of confidence that either cares enough to get things right.

Both will be asking the public for patience in the weeks to come. They should first have to show a positive reading on the care meter.


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