Billingsley Position on Oxford House
Many people have asked me how I feel about this controversial issue, and I have been forthcoming with them all. Not a single question has been avoided, and not a single person has walked away without knowing exactly how I feel. Some chosen to ask anonymously on a popular local blog, and I have chosen not to respond simply because the issue is too important and my position too detailed to adequately state it in a blog post. Additionally, that particular blog allows readers to post anonymously, and it’s easy to be impolite when nobody knows who you are. I prefer to discuss the issues with people who don’t mind telling me their names.
This is an important issue to all Mississippians, whether they’re recovering addicts in search of a safe place to continue their sobriety or people who simply want to keep their neighborhoods safe and their property values steady. That said, there are multiple aspects to this issue, and all must be considered in forming a position on the future of government supervised sober living homes in Mississippi.
First, I agree with the neighbors in northeast Jackson who want the Oxford Houses relocated. However, short of a change in the Fair Housing Act that would remove the exemption from local zoning regulations, I don’t see a way within the law to force this action. Even if the Oxford House residents weren’t exempt from the city of Jackson’s current zoning regulations, the homes would still legal as long as they housed four or fewer unrelated adult residents. I believe there’s a business solution to this problem if all the interested parties are willing, and I will be happy to act as an intermediary to move the process along, but the law is the law and it should be followed.
I also believe strongly in personal property rights. I think real estate owners should be able to do whatever they want with their property as long as they act within the law and any legal covenants of the property. I think restrictions within homeowners association agreements that are within the law and agreed upon in advance by the residents should also be followed, but neighbors should not be able to dictate conditions outside those agreements to other neighbors. Further, I believe that anyone who is legally living in a house should be able to enjoy it without purposeful neighborhood interference. The free market provides numerous ways to settle neighborhood disputes, and contracts between willing participants should be honored.
Next, I think the concept of sober living homes needs to be reexamined in light of the Oxford House developments. In all the excitement about their locations no one has asked about their effectiveness, and that should be the most important factor in determining their future in Mississippi. I have family experience with addiction, as many of you doubtless do, and I feel like we need to help – or at least try not to hurt - these people who are trying to recover and get their lives back on track. The DMH plan for the Oxford Houses from the beginning was to evaluate the program to see if it was effective, and I think they should continue to do that without legislative interference. The legislature appropriates money and sets the budget, and the DMH budget that included the Oxford House federal grant money has been approved by the legislature every year since they opened their first house on the coast in January of 2013. Once the budget is approved, the DMH experts are the ones who should be making operational decisions on the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction, and sober living programs are properly included under the purview of the department. They may decide to continue the program as is or they may scrap it altogether and leave the recovering addicts to fend for themselves, but I am confident in their qualifications and prepared to support their decision in the State Senate. I am absolutely against abolishing the state Board of Mental Health and placing the DMH under the Governor’s office unless there are multiple other significant reasons to take such extreme action. I think the Department of Mental Health is doing a good job, and it’s short sighted to consider reorganizing the entire department because of a house at 2230 Northside Drive.
I believe homeowners in the area have been hurt by the publicity that has arisen from this issue, and that publicity didn’t start until Senator Longwitz entered the battle. Councilman Foote has been working with the city on the zoning issues on the Oxford House on Forest Park for some time before the first of April, and not a single story had been reported in the Clarion Ledger or other print media, and no news stories had been featured on local television or radio programs. At this point it was a neighborhood issue that was being handled quietly, and I would have followed Councilman Foote’s lead and tried to work privately for as long as possible in order to protect my constituents from the negative effects of the unfavorable publicity. I think it was a mistake to force the participants – the owners of the houses, the recovering addicts, the concerned neighbors, the Department of Mental Health, and Oxford House corporate – to take such public and adversarial positions before private efforts had been exhausted. The media coverage might have eventually happened, but I think more of an effort should have been made to reach a solution before purposely fighting the battle in the media. This was clearly the Senator’s choice, since he made multiple posts to his Facebook page before his first meeting with the Director of the Department of Mental Health. It’s been my experience that public disagreements, especially when egos like these are involved, tend to harden everyone’s stance and make negotiation more difficult, and I think a business solution might have been possible had the negotiations taken place in private. I realize I have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, but as a businessman I believe private negotiation produces better results than public confrontation.
I am grateful that Senator Longwitz has responded to his constituents, as he should have and as I will if elected in August, and is helping them try to resolve a difficult issue. However, his constituents – one of whom is me – deserve an explanation of his April 2 statement that he had known about the Oxford House situation “for several months” before he contacted anyone at the Department of Mental Health to ask questions or see if he could find a solution. The legislature was in session when he made his first public statement, and - depending on what he meant by “several months” - his knowledge could have preceded the legislature convening on January 2. At that point had I been your State Senator I would have sought out the Department of Mental Health director to at least try to gather more information and possibly find a solution that might have prevented the house at 2230 Northside Drive from opening. We also deserve to know how he came by the private letter that was sent by the Governor to the Diana Mikula, the DMH director, and the Board of Mental Health members, and whether he had the Governor’s permission to release it to the public, further evidence that it was his choice to make this a public battle regardless of the negative impact the publicity might have on the neighborhood. Further, he continued in his April 2 statement by making the claim that “many of these recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are also sex offenders.” In fact, had he checked with the DMH at any point in his research – which, by his own admission he had ample time to do - he would have found that not a single sex offender has ever lived in an Oxford House in Mississippi. His blatantly false accusation, made without any effort to seek the facts, served only to promote fear among the people in the neighborhood and was hurtful to the many recovering addicts and their family members who struggle to maintain their sobriety. I am a plain spoken man with no patience for double speak. While you may not always like what I say, you will be able to depend on it being the truth.
In closing, I am pleased at the polite and encouraging reception so many of you have given me when I have appeared on your porch. I have learned much about northeast Jackson in my neighborhood walks. I have seen beautiful homes, wonderful old tree lined streets, great schools and plenty to make every resident proud. Unfortunately, I have seen other things – pot holes, security fencing, double locks, above ground sewage pipes – that need to be fixed, and I promise to work in the Senate to try to find a way to help the city of Jackson to make the much needed repairs to its infrastructure and assist in stopping the crime that seems to have expanded well into your community. The state capital belongs to all of us, and we all need to do our part to help solve its problems. The citizens of northeast Jackson and throughout District 25 will be able to count on my support in the Senate, and I will work tirelessly to protect their interests.
As always, I’m available to discuss this further or answer any questions, and can be reached on my cell phone at 601-940-9954.
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