By Terri Ferguson Smith / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
Being safe from crime, and having good schools, roads, water, and sewer systems in place are top concerns of many Meridian citizens, according to Mayor Percy Bland, who is in the first month of his first term in office.
Bland shared his concerns and goals with members of the Meridian Rotary Club on Wednesday, telling his audience — many of whom are business owners — that as education goes, so goes the city's progress.
"You're going to do better when those kids do better," Bland said, referring to the many children who get into trouble with the law and drop out of school.
Bland was asked about his role, well prior to his election, in a Department of Justice investigation into discipline policies in the Meridian Public School District that eventually led to a new discipline policy.
"My role is I've always been an advocate for children," Bland said. "When I see a lot of kids being handcuffed and arrested from the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, in front of other students, taken away to juvenile justice department — those kinds of things are game-changing for a child ... Some of the things that were going on should not have been going on."
Bland said if the police have to be called to handcuff and arrest a young student, "You might as well take them from that seventh-grade classroom and take them straight on to the penitentiary, because that's where they'll end up."
He said the consent decree between DOJ and the school district will provide better discipline options and will provide for better communications.
Asked about whether he planned to add more officers to the police department and how he would get a handle on crime, Bland said the department must first get several hired just to have the number of officers for which the city has already budgeted. He also wants the next budget to include several more officers.
In the meantime, Bland said James Lee, the new chief of police, has officers going out in groups of eight to 10 in specific areas, not limited to what he called hot spots, but also areas where businesses have had burglaries.
"You will see more strategic units in our community," Bland said. "We're still having too many residential break-ins, which we are not happy with."
Bland said the city will also form more partnerships with county law enforcement.
The mayor also took a question about perceptions of Meridian, from both without and within the area, and how that affects economic development.
"We just hope to be change agents for this city. To be change agents for this city, first of all you have to be willing to talk honestly and openly about your problems and peoples' fears," Bland said. "We're in an impoverished town, at the end of the day. We have a lot of students in the public school system, nine out of ten, on free and reduced meals. That matters."
In order to succeed, Bland said people who live in the city have to believe that Meridian can win.