Jackson’s image could be hurt by Mayor

Published 4:21 pm Thursday, March 8, 2007

The city of Jackson’s image took a hit Wednesday when Mayor Frank Melton was arrested on allegations he violated his probation on weapons charges, and word is starting to leak beyond Mississippi’s borders.

A city with image problems, suddenly has another one. After local reporters finished with Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillin, he fielded a call from the Los Angeles Times.

“Things of this nature are never good but just like the United States, we survived Watergate, we survived Bill Clinton’s blue dress. We’ll survive this as well, Jackson City Council President Ben Allen said. “Now, there’s not a positive spin you can put on this. But on the other hand it’s not a total calamity, either. The government is functioning, things are happening as they’re supposed to.”

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Melton turned himself in Wednesday after a week in a Jackson area hospital. The 57-year-old, who had double bypass surgery in late January, complained of chest pains hours after a judge issued a warrant for his arrest last Thursday. He was ordered into the hospital by his doctors.

Amid the frenzy of media coverage, one television station said it had learned the mayor was forced out of the hospital because his condition improved.

Melton will be held in a medical ward at the jail in nearby Raymond, separated from prisoners for his own safety. He will stay there at least until Friday when a judge has scheduled a hearing with the Department of Corrections.

The mayor also faces trial next month on charges that he and his bodyguards destroyed a Jackson duplex with sledge hammers because he believed it to be a drug house.

Attention on the mayor’s many problems have drawn the focus away from the city’s many problems. Crime has become an overriding concern for many of the 179,000 residents and flight to the suburbs by citizens and businesses has been a reality for years. The city also is short hundreds of thousands of dollars in expected tax funds.

Yet much of the focus has been on the cartoonish adventures of Melton, who has carried a gun for his own protection, conducted late-night inspections of local clubs and is the subject of a handful of unsavory urban legends.

Allen believes little harm has been done to the city’s reputation and the situation can be rescued — if the mayor acts quickly to undo the damage.

“The messier this thing gets, the worse it can make the city look and the more long-term harm it can have,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I have a quiet confidence that as this unfolds the mayor will make the right decisions.”

Allen said that in instances where a mayor is incapacitated state law calls for the mayor, if able, or the city council to appoint an acting mayor from the council for 60 days.

He said case law has dealt with mayors who are in a coma or involved in an auto accident.

“It’s never mentioned incarceration,” he said. “But we’re hoping, truly hoping, that the mayor, if he is in fact incarcerated for any length of time … that he will follow state law and appoint somebody mayor.”

Allen said as council president, it would be inappropriate for him to call for Melton to resign.

“Now as a private citizen, I do have to ask myself can the city stand 2 1/2 more years of what we’ve endured over the last year and a half,” Allen said.

Until Friday’s hearing, Melton will have the same privileges as other Hinds County prisoners and nothing more, McMillin said.

Melton is on probation after taking a plea deal on weapons charges last year. He was wanted for four alleged probation violations.

The 57-year-old first-term mayor avoided jail time on the weapons charges and stayed in office under a plea deal. He was allowed to plead no contest on a reduced a felony charge of carrying a weapon on a campus and guilty on two misdemeanor weapons charges.

A felony conviction would have forced him from office.

Melton was given a six-month suspended sentence on each count, one year of probation and fined $1,500. If he is found to have violated the terms of his probation, he could be forced to serve out his sentence.

McMillin has taken heat for arresting Melton, twice now. He told reporters during a news conference that he was simply following the law by arresting Melton and he bore no ill will to the mayor, who he has known for 20 years. He said Wednesday was a sad day for the community.

“Our relationship is not the same as it once was,” McMillin said. “This is not a particularly happy day for me and I know it’s not for the community, and I wish it hadn’t come to this.”