Jackson’s interim third-party manager of its water system has the complete confidence of the federal judge with oversight of the expensive, long-term project. But this confident pat on the back for system manager Ted Henifin has raised the ire of a number of community representatives who only the week before had repeatedly asked that more controls and accountability be imposed on Henifin.
Federal District Judge Henry Wingate said in his opinion last Friday (July 21) that he had made the right choice in appointing Ted Henifin “the helmsman to navigate the City of Jackson through its water crisis.”
“I have not been disappointed,” Wingate said. “He clearly is the man for the job, as any fair-minded, knowledgeable observer would attest.”
This followed two days of community-based testimony presented during a status conference on July 12-13 that asked for more community representation and greater transparency in the operations and day-to-day reports on the third-party manager’s actions on the job.
“Henifin has complied in every respect with the duties expected of him by this court,” Wingate wrote in his opinion.
He later cited some of the major accomplishments Henifin and his crew achieved in the seven months since his appointment on November 30 — fixed a ruptured culvert that spewed 5 million gallons of water a day for over 7 years; patched over 200 leaks; professionalized the water system’s call center by moving it to Pearl. “For this alone, Henifin and his crew deserved ‘heroic’ status,” said Wingate.
“The staunchest of critics can only see race and outsider prejudice,” the judge said. “Ted is white. And because Jackson is more than 80 percent African American, his critics reasoned that Jackson should have as its water savior — an African American and…someone from Jackson itself.”
Wingate called Henifin’s critics “racists,” saying they did not know the impact of their racially charged words “uttered in a deep-South state they have attacked all their lives for racism.”
Expressing her disappointment with Wingate’s characterization of the community petitioners as racists, Okolo Rashid, a former schoolmate of the judge, now CEO and executive director of the International Museum of Muslim Cultures, said, “I’ve known Judge Wingate since high school. I respect him and the work that he’s doing.” She said. “(But) to blanketly dismiss the concerns of the community is unbecoming of him.
“I’m hoping that he’s going to reconsider and to address the specifics of the issues because some of the issues were somewhat critically presented, expressive. But I don’t think it had anything to do with racism at all.”
Transparency and the community being a part of the process are positive ideas, she said. “I know that he cannot be saying that those kinds of concerns are just a reflection of racism.”
Makani Themba, communications volunteer with the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, called Wingate’s put-down of the people representing the community “unfortunate.”
“Folks came there to speak on issues of not receiving water,” she said. “It was sad for it to be misconstrued in a negative way. That was unfortunate. I think it’s hard for the community to take part in such a proceeding. And it was a little confusing as to whether it was testimony or whether people were making statements. There’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be tended to and that infrastructure should be designed and rebuilt and repaired to fit the city. That doesn’t sound like racism to me. It seems like common sense.”
Danyelle Holmes, speaking on behalf of the Poor People’s Campaign of Mississippi and the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition, was one of the community activists Wingate had engaged in a few heated exchanges with during the July 12-13 Status Conference.
“I find it very disheartening to turn this into a race issue – a race war,” Holmes said Tuesday. “Jackson residents are simply fighting for the basic human right of access to clean drinking water. And any concern that relates to the safety of Jackson’s water should also be the concern of any individual that’s in a leadership role, whether that’s a judge, a governor, a mayor or whoever.
“This is not a Black or white issue. This is an issue for all Jacksonians. The same water that’s traveling to my house in northeast Jackson is the same water that’s traveling up the street into Eastover.”
Holmes said that it was the community that first “embraced” Ted Henifin in his new position as the interim third-party manager.
“The Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition is the same organization that Mr. Henifin himself stood up before, [along with] media and the community, and said that he was in partnership with this organization,” she added. “He came to those meetings and embraced us and said he was ready to work with us and that he would ensure that we had the necessary access; he would be very transparent with us.
“Judge Wingate didn’t mention that we didn’t break any promises to Mr. Henifin,” she said. “Mr. Henifin broke his promises to the community.”
Holmes said that Henifin’s special status as an officer of the court places him above the law and allows him to circumvent certain laws that should protect the rights of the people who work for him.
“Mr. Henifin is afraid of his own power,” Holmes said. “In a town hall meeting he was in at Millsaps (Mar. 7, 2023), he told the people there he had been given more power than he would have given himself. That alone should raise a red flag. That there’re no checks and balances here when it comes to overseeing and ensuring that Jackson’s water infrastructure is fixed.”
The Millsaps town hall can be seen on the JXNWater.com website and Facebook page, she said.
“It was the judge who gave Mr. Henifin this power with absolutely no oversight. The community can’t just call Judge Wingate when they’re not getting boil-water notices or they’re seeing water coming out of their faucets that’s brown with trash or that may even be contaminated.”
Holmes said the community should respond to Judge Wingate because of his July 21 opinion.
“It is because we see there is a bias in how he is handling the community versus how he is handling Ted Henifin,” she said, “as if Mr. Henifin is above reproach. And that is a very dangerous position to put anyone in, where there is absolutely no accountability (except) to one judge.”
Wingate concludes that Henifin has complied in every respect with the duties expected of him by his court. Henifin is expected to comply with the court’s direction to give full accountability of the federal dollars received and expended, an estimated $800 million total, with $600 million from an Omnibus Bill provided by the federal government that can only be spent on repairing the Jackson water system under Henifin’s direction.
Henifin is also expected to pursue a program to inform the public on how water bills are calculated, and what progress has been made “in identifying funds to unburden the citizenry from having to finance the cost of new piping linking city pipes to those owned by the homeowner.”
Speaking of the challenge of repairing a long-broken water system, Wingate concluded, “Diligently, we are working towards these ends.”