Asked last month about his plans for the future, Mike Jones repeated a familiar pledge: He'd be leaving City Hall soon. The reason, the deputy mayor for development explained: "I want to get out of government while most of my ass is still intact."
Jones finally made good on his pledge to leave city government, although he did not make the call and the condition of his derriere is unclear. Mayor Clarence Harmon fired him on Nov. 9, a few hours after Jones directed a profanity-laced blast at Harmon near the end of a weekly meeting with about a dozen city development officials. Jones admits he used most of the words banned on TV and that anybody who heard him "would have thought they were in a NBA locker room."
Jones says he blew up after Harmon said he wanted to halt and review the Merchandise Mart redevelopment deal because of concerns lodged by other developers. Jones insisted it was too late for that; the city's Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority had selected Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI) as the developer, a development agreement had been signed and an earnest deposit was in hand. Other developers complained that the city wasn't paid enough for the building and that HRI was getting a sweetheart deal because it is the developer for the city's $276 million convention hotel. Jones disputes those points but was especially irked that the deal was questioned because one-third of the project was being set aside for subsidized-housing units. Jones says having low-income units as part of the project made additional financing available and gave a more egalitarian feel to downtown development. "I'm still a liberal Democrat, and, being black, I would not bust my ass every day for three years to create yuppie heaven," says Jones. "For me, if I'm working this hard, it's to try to create opportunity for everybody to benefit."
An exasperated Jones told Harmon that the mayor couldn't keep "flip-flopping" on issues, that such indecision and inaction led to an unstable climate for development. The charge has been leveled against Harmon by many observers, including Jones, many times before. "We'd had that discussion in the past on a more philosophical level," Jones says. "That day, it was more emotional."
This time, the mayor was having second thoughts about a deal that was signed, sealed and almost delivered. "Sometimes you say a deal is done, but this deal was finished," says Jones. "I just told the mayor, "It's done; it's over.' He said he didn't know about it. I said, "Yes, you did. We discussed it here.'" Then Harmon expressed concerns raised by another developer; that was when the conversation went ballistic. "After I said the developer was wrong, that's when, we had, to use a State Department euphemism, a "frank and open discussion' of the issue."
Jones walked out the door, hurling back a few expletives suggesting what those opposed to the Merchandise Mart deal could do. He then took a drive, got lunch and went home to eat. He learned he had been fired when Matt Murphy of KTRS (550 AM) called him. His first reaction to the news, he says, was "Fuck it." He had planned to leave; he just hadn't planned on getting fired.
The mayor refuses to discuss why he sacked Jones but says he no longer objects to the Merchandise Mart redevelopment plan. In other words, it appears that Harmon fired his highest-profile, most politically adept, most popular and most effective top aide because he got in the mayor's face and told him what many other people already believe: that the mayor is indecisive, doesn't pay attention and doesn't have his act together.
Of course, Harmon is anxious to put all this Jones talk behind him. "What people have to know is that Mike Jones is gone," Harmon says. "He's missed; he's my personal friend. Beyond that, I'm not going to talk about the situation. But I'll tell you we have lots of people who fill lots of gaps here in different ways. People will make issues about this as they might, but other than a few newspaper people and a couple of TV folks, I haven't heard much about this."
Oh, but he will. As soon as the campaign starts lurching toward the March primary, each time Harmon mentions the office buildings going up at the Arena site, the convention hotel or downtown loft development, his opponents will remind voters that those deals were patched together primarily by someone Harmon fired. And though Jones says his departure is not "an ugly divorce" and he speaks well of Harmon the person, calling him a "nice guy" and "amiable and personable on a lot of levels," it's clear that he's disappointed with Harmon's performance.
The widespread perception that Harmon routinely gets to work late, leaves early and seldom hesitates to take a day off for illness or holiday rings true with Jones: "That's how I ended up being the go-to guy, because the environment won't permit a vacuum. It just doesn't. You go to City Hall, you have to talk to somebody." Listless mayoral behavior yields a detrimental fall-out.
"You can't send people where you're not willing to go and you can't ask people to work harder than you're willing to work," says Jones. "The essence of leadership is, you set that standard, and if people believe in where you're going, they will give you that 110 percent. If you don't set that standard, you can't create that. You really do lead by example."
Jones recalls advice given to him decades ago by North Side politician Chink Washington, who said, "To get some ass, you got to bring some ass." Loosely translated, it means that to achieve something, you have to commit yourself and risk something. The real problem with the mayor's office right now, Jones believes, is that saving the city "requires you putting your ass on the line every day" and that means focused attention and effort on a list of projects. "That's the key to success. It ain't skill, it ain't luck; it's "Are you willing to risk what is necessary to be successful?' If you are, you have a chance."