Showboaters rarely make exemplary mayors

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 1, 2009

Jackson Mayor Frank Melton has once again dodged accountability for a sledgehammer “raid” on a low-income house reputed to be a popular venue for drug dealing. A federal trial jury knotted, just as a state court jury did earlier, and was unable to return a verdict that would have made the outspoken chief executive of the state’s largest city a criminal felon or, in the alternative, an innocent man.

What Melton did, and what he remains accused of doing, cannot be excused. America is not a country in which government agents can go into a private home and inflict wanton destruction with no accountability to anyone. The Fourth Amendment was adopted way back in 1789. Even then it was recognized that no citizen could be free unless government actions had limits.

This is not high-brow, textbook stuff. It’s real and it’s basic. Just because authorities believe a citizen may have broken a law does not give rise to unlimited power.

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The toll of the trials has been great on the state’s capital, where people elected Melton and his larger-than-life persona to try to do the job of getting a dysfunctional city back on its feet. Like many urban areas, Jackson has been bleeding jobs and citizens and tax revenue to newer, more affluent suburban areas with less congestion, less crime, less fear.

The toll of the trials has been great on Melton, too. Only 59, he looks much older. His medical diagnosis is public and grim — progressive and terminal heart disease.

Indeed, the wind might have been taken out of the sails of this showboater, a skilled orator who rose to prominence as the general manager of a TV station. He came off as sincere, committed, involved and ready to back up his words with action. His fan base grew. After a troubled stint as the appointed chief of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, he was ushered into office as Jackson’s mayor amid great expectations.

Not suited to the tedium of governance, he took it to the streets — becoming almost comedic with his swagger, paramilitary uniforms and bodyguards.

Meanwhile, city business languished and crime actually increased. The state’s largest newspaper called for Melton’s resignation. A bevy of opponents has lined up to take his job in this year’s elections. And it’s still not known whether he’ll wind up in prison.

Citizens should be more than spectators as the Melton saga continues. We should be students. The lesson to be learned is that big talk is not leadership. There has to be substance, too. That’s where Melton has been lacking. He got the people’s trust, but failed. It’s a tragic story, but instructive.