Sam Habeeb looks back on time in office

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 12, 2001

South Ward Alderman Sam Habeeb sits in the board room at City Hall. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[03/12/01] South Ward Alderman Sam Habeeb leaned all the way back in his chair and seemed to almost be staring at the ceiling of his office as he quietly reflected on his past four years as a city official.

His office in City Hall is sparsely decorated with only a few personal mementos. Along one wall, shelves are filled with law books and a couple of small photos, but the most noticeable adornments are the large, framed maps of Vicksburg from different eras scattered about the office on other walls.

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“I like maps,” he said. “I have a thing for maps.”

From this office on the second floor of City Hall, the 32-year-old Habeeb has served the South Ward since being elected in 1997. Last year, he said he would not seek a second term.

“All I ever wanted was a good four years in local government,” Habeeb said. “I’m most proud of the fact that I stayed with what I campaigned on.”

2-TO-1 HABEEB’

During his term, constituents have pegged him “2-to-1 Habeeb” for his occasional dissenting vote on issues usually dealing with money. A self-described fiscal conservative, he has voted against each year’s budget, but each year was overruled by his two Democratic counterparts, Mayor Robert Walker and North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young, in a 2-1 vote.

“I think that voting nay and having a good reason is something to be proud of,” he said. “I wish I had won a few more points that I have advocated.

“Or a lot more,” he added after a pause.

Habeeb has said the city is becoming too dependent on cash reserves and casino revenue for the day-to-day operation of city services.

“The biggest question people want to know is where is the casino money going,'” Habeeb said. “The answer is that 20 percent of every department’s budget is casino revenue.”

Habeeb has also opposed projects such as the $1.6 million Jackson Street Center and the Douglas Park precinct as poor uses of taxpayer funds. The construction of the new police precinct has been just one example of where he has been publicly critical of the Vicksburg Police Department.

POLITICS VS. PROGRESS

As his term starts winding down, Habeeb said he is disappointed with the strides made in the police department during the current administration.

“We had a real opportunity to improve law enforcement in our city,” he said. But “politics got in the way and the police department did not meet its expectations.”

Since Chief Mitchell Dent took over as top cop in the city a year ago, Habeeb said things have improved in the police department. Under the city’s charter, the mayor and aldermen are assigned certain duties. As South Ward alderman, Habeeb’s duties have included overseeing the fire department, while the police department has fallen under the mayor’s office.

“The police officers know that traditionally, the chief has been run from up here,” he said, “and that micro-management is something I disagree with.”

SPEAKING OUT

In a guest column in Sunday’s edition, Habeeb directs his frustration about the police department to Walker and Young, who he says should have taken quick action in the false arrest lawsuit brought by an oral surgeon.

“I think the Ruggles and the Stevens situations have added more strain to every police officer,” he said. “These situations overshadow the good police work.”

Dr. James E. Ruggles had initially sought an apology from City Hall after Vicksburg narcotics officers arrested him in February 1999 after being told by others, including District Attorney Gil Martin, that the facts on which they planned to charge him did not constitute a crime.

The charges were not prosecuted and Ruggles filed suit in U.S. District Court when no action was taken. Ruggles died Nov. 23 and, to date, no action has been taken by the city to resolve the continuing case with the family.

“The only way to correct it is to admit that there is a problem,” Habeeb said. “And that’s why the city should apologize.”

Lorie G. Stevens brought a suit against the city claiming that a police officer made derogatory comments about her after she was beaten and raped at a home on Sky Farm Avenue in July 1999.

The city settled that suit for $10,000 in January but did not admit liability.

The bottom line, Habeeb said, is that the public loses confidence in the police department when the city does not take swift action to resolve matters.

“I think a lot of police officers feel let down,” he said. “A lot of them had high hopes after the last elections.”

NOT ALWAYS AT ODDS

Although managing the police and fire departments have often put Habeeb and Walker at odds, the two have not always disagreed. In 1998, the two voted together to close the city’s airport on U.S. 61 South in favor of the regional airport in Mound.

The 2-1 vote, with Young dissenting, put the wheels in motion for litigation that continues today in the Mississippi Supreme Court.

“I put a lot of time in my first year in office learning everything I could about it,” Habeeb said.

Closing the Vicksburg Municipal Airport on U.S. 61 South is important to the city, He said, so that the 270-acre site can be developed for industry.

“Keeping the airport open just isn’t in the best interest of the city in the south, because we need it for new industries,” he said. “I really do believe that VTR is the future and its going to grow.”

In litigation over the airport, plaintiffs sued to keep the city airport open, claiming that funding for the Vicksburg Tallulah Regional airport was improper and that the facility was unsafe. In response to orders issued from Circuit Judge Frank Vollor after a year of court motions and the testimony of experts and the mayor and aldermen, the city formed an airport authority to continue funding.

“During the lawsuits, I think we handled ourselves pretty well,” Habeeb said. “My advice (to the next administration) is to stay the course with VTR.”

WHERE HE’S HEADED

There are many other achievements that Habeeb said he is proud of, including strides made in the fire department, the construction of two new girls’ softball fields at Halls Ferry park and the time he has spent talking to elementary children about drug abuse.

Now his attention begun to turn to the search for new employment in July.

“I desire to use my abilities in the law and experience in government to continue working for the government at the state level,” he said.

One possible career move is a job in the State Attorney General’s Office working in the opinions division. For the past few months, Habeeb has worked part-time there researching and writing legal opinions.

“I’m hoping to stay in Vicksburg, but the opportunities are in Jackson or elsewhere,” he said.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of political life for Habeeb, who said he may consider higher office such as the Legislature or Congress.

“Bottom line, I like public service,” he said. “There’s nothing definite that I’m looking at right now.”