The following is a transcript of the CheckIn interview conducted by GovSight Producer Sully Barrett with Jackson, Tennessee, Mayor Scott Conger on the coronavirus and police reform. The interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Sully Barrett: Mayor Conger, thank you for joining me today on CheckIn by GovSight. We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
Mayor Scott Conger: Well my pleasure, thanks for having me on today.
SB: Of course. So we want to start with the number one news issue right now, which has been the number one news issue for several months now. COVID-19 cases are rising in your area, as well as other cities in the south. Are your plans for reopening businesses changing or reversing course at all?
SC: It’s a concern that we all have. We knew once we started lifting restrictions that the cases would rise. And I think our main objective now is to understand and focus on what flattening the curve means — for us at least, [it] is to make sure that we have the hospital capacity, the ventilators, the staff, the beds, if people require hospitalization. I think it's an unrealistic expectation and goal to say that no one is going to get sick. Of course, we don't want anyone to get sick. But we have to make sure that the priority of flattening the curve is that of the hospital capacity.
We're a little unique from other places. Our hospital serves about 16 counties here in West Tennessee. And so, we have to not only look at the numbers from Madison County, but all the surrounding counties. And so it creates a different level of expectation and challenge for us because, in Tennessee, we're one of the six counties that can make up our own rules, but we could eliminate COVID in Madison County, but our hospital could still see its capacity reach from other counties surrounding. So that's something that we have to keep a close eye on.
We're encouraging our citizens to wear masks. We're making sure that we're trying to encourage social distancing. As far as city venues, we haven't had any events at our city venues, trying to limit the exposure that way. We're being very precautious with our meetings and trying to make sure that we are keeping that in mind, our hospital capacity, listening to our health experts. One thing that we have done that I think has been unique across the country is, from the start of this, when it really became a topic in Tennessee around the middle of March, we convened a group that consisted of city leadership, county leadership, health department, our local chamber, our local energy authority, our hospital leadership, emergency management school system, our local United Way. And at the peak of the pandemic, when the shutdowns were happening, executive orders were — seems like they were — coming out every other day, we met every single day to talk about what was going on with new cases, contact tracing, hospital capacity, making sure that our students were getting fed and making sure that our social services here in Madison County had the adequate resources to provide the assistance it will require from people getting laid off.
SB: So, one thing, just to backtrack a little bit, that you mentioned, is being one of the counties — one of the six counties, I think you mentioned — that can make their own rules with regards to COVID-19. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?
SC: Yeah, it's a great question. So we have in Tennessee, out of the 95 counties, there are six counties that have metro-regional health departments, Madison County being one of them. And so, in the governor's reopen order, his order for reopen and executive orders pertain to the 89 counties that don't have metro health departments. And so the counties that have metro health departments can determine if they want to follow the guidelines of the state, or if they want to place greater restrictions or open up some areas sooner.
For example, when that first happened — gosh, it seems like two years ago, but I guess in May — we had planned to reopen salons with strict guidelines a couple of days prior to the state. So we're able to make those decisions. But like I said, we're not on an island. We serve — you know, Jackson, Madison County is a regional hub with — our population in the city’s roughly 68,000. But because we're a regional hub for work, for retail, our population doubles pretty much every day. And so we see people from every other county coming in here. And so it's important for us to — even though we have the ability to do that — to understand that we're going to have people from the county surrounding us coming in every day, and we have to make sure that we're as consistent as possible with those restrictions and regulations because we don't want to to cripple our small business here by keeping them closed when the small businesses, oh, just 10 minutes to the north of them, are open, and the customers can go there.
SB: So, with regards to restrictions in other places, you have mentioned that enforcing a mask mandate might be difficult. But Nashville actually, recently, has ordered that they’re requiring masks in public. So how does that influence your decision in Jackson?
SC: Well, I think every local government has to do what's best for them. We've talked about that, you know. An order is one thing; enforcing the order is another. You look at places like Memphis, Nashville, even New York that have mask mandates in place, their leaders are still — seems like on a daily basis — begging people to wear masks. And so, you know, how do we enforce that? How do we ensure that people are doing that? Does that divert our police department or our codes department away from the other business that they have to do to just be on mask patrol? And so, I don't think there's a good answer. And so we're trying to figure out, if we do that — if we have to do that — how do we enforce it, and how do we monitor that and ensure the safety of people?
SB: That’s a good point. Now, because you mentioned the police department, I want to switch gears just a little bit and talk about the anti-racism protests going on everywhere around the country. Now, Nashville just ordered body cameras to be fitted on every Metro Police officer for which cost estimates I believe have been around $40 million. Now, have you looked at potential reform legislation for Jackson Police?
SC: So fortunately for us, we have a very proactive police department and police chief, who — a lot of the measures that are being talked about on the national level, our police department has already implemented. We are purchasing additional body cameras. Right now our body camera system is for each shift. And so they're placed on a charge, next shift picks them up. We’re actually — we put into our capital budget for this coming fiscal year, we'll purchase additional body cameras to equip every officer so they each have their own personal body camera.
So instead of having to make sure that the person prior to your shift puts it on the docking station correctly with enough time to get your charge for your shift, everyone has their own camera. So that's that's one effort that we're doing. Our policy already prohibited chokeholds, and so we're going through our policies and with our police department very strictly, with our legal team and our police department's legal team, to ensure that we're providing the best environment possible for our police department to be safe and the people that we serve to be safe.
SB: Gotcha. So outside of the police department, obviously, systemic racism is running rampant in every sector, whether it’s education, housing, economic policy. What steps are you and other officials taking to diminish that impact?
SC: I think it's important for us to be proactive and not be completely reactionary, to the demands, right? So what we have done — today, matter of fact, marks my completion of my first year in office. And so one of the first things that I did when I took office last July was to implement an anti-poverty task force to look at things like that. Socio-economic prohibitions, you know, upward mobility, how we provide services. My background is in nonprofit. And so I have a little better understanding of what the overall needs are, as opposed to not being in that area. And so looking at that equity, as opposed to equality, how do we provide equitable solutions for education, for economic mobility, for food deserts, for financial deserts and redlining? Looking at redevelopment in our areas, how can we provide affordable — quality affordable — housing? I think a lot of times we get so focused on the affordable piece, we forget about the quality piece. And so if someone's living in a duplex or apartment, and they're paying a subsidized rent, they’re paying a cheap rent, but their utility bill in the wintertime is double their rent, then that's not quality, and it's not affordable at that time. And so we have to look at those measures to make sure that we're providing quality, providing affordability, and we're providing opportunity.
SB: So, this next question is a little bit different topic, but because you mentioned quality of life and equity, I wanna talk about Governor Bill Lee’s new abortion law, which is — makes Tennessee one of the most restrictive states on abortion in the country. This one is based on fetal heartbeat and does not make exceptions for rape or incest. So, I wanna ask, what impact do you think this will have on the standard of life for Tennessee residents?
SC: Oh gosh, I should try to stay away from state level politics and focus on my local municipality. But I think, you know, if we're looking at quality healthcare, and there has to be a component in there for prenatal, postnatal care. And I think that, my personal opinion outside of any political opinion is, we need to have more women at the table to talk about women's healthcare than we do. And I think that's imperative for that. And we have to make sure that we're not being just pro-birth, and actually being pro-life, in our decision-making.
SB: I understand that. And I know you just mentioned you wanna stay away from state politics, but I must ask because I saw one of your recent Tweets about your opinion on the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Ku Klux Klan founder — a bust of him inside Tennessee’s State Capitol building. So I just wanted to ask, what can you do as mayor to influence the state’s decisions on such matters?
SC: I think it's the same thing that we have here locally. To give you an example, we have a monument on our county courthouse that was erected in 1888 to honor — ‘in memory,’ I think is what it says — of the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. I think context is everything. While I don't have a decision in that, I do have a platform, and I think it's important that people that have platforms that can possibly influence through their platforms, to do so. And so I've made a comment about the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust in the capital. Also, I think that it's time that our local monument here at the courthouse be moved. The city itself, while it doesn't own the property nor the monument, it does own the oldest cemetery in the city. And I've offered a lot in that cemetery for the monument. Since we do have Confederate soldiers buried in that cemetery, I just think it's appropriate to move the monument that — in memory of the dead, to a cemetery.
SB: That’s good to hear. Now, you did mention that today marks exactly one year since the start of your term as mayor, and frankly, it’s been quite an eventful year. So we just — I wanna wrap this up with asking you a question we ask everyone who comes on CheckIn. How did you first get into politics and government, and what advice do you have for someone who’s starting out in those fields?
SC: Oh, gosh. I think mine’s a little unique. My grandfather was mayor here in Jackson from ‘67 to ‘88. And so I grew up a little bit with it. And when I got to college, I got involved at the local level and kind of neighborhood organizations, homeowners association, neighborhood association. And I was — I believe I was 27. And we had a city councilman that I felt was not representing the district that he served. And so, [I] ran against him and was elected, and so served a term and a half on the council. When you get married and have kids, you have to sometimes make sacrifices, and so I had to move out of the district and had to resign in 2017, and then ran for mayor in 2019. I think it’s getting plugged in, getting involved. And if you don't wait for someone else to step up, if you see something that needs to be done. You don't have to be, you know, an elected official to be involved and to create sustainable, systemic change and social change.
And so, you see people saying, “Well, something needs to happen. Someone needs to do something.” Well, we are that someone. And we all have an ability to create change, to convene people and to have our voices heard.
Contact the interviewer at email@example.com.