Government troubles continue for Cairo

Thursday, May 29, 2003

CAIRO, Ill. -- Only weeks after this Southern Illinois city elected its first new mayor in 12 years, a political melee among its top officials has generated lawsuits and city council members are boycotting their meetings.

The raucous also has caught the eye of the Attorney General's office, which is reviewing the city's finances.

It all started when local salesman Paul Farris defeated incumbent James Wilson in the April 1 mayoral election, after pledging to "clean house" in Alexander County's biggest city, which is among the state's poorest.

Within days of taking office on May 1, Farris fired the police and fire chiefs, streets superintendent, city clerk and city lawyer.

"These people weren't doing their jobs," Farris said in his city hall office on Wednesday. The previous administration, he said, "has had 12 years to clean this place up, and look at it."

The city of 3,600 on the state's southern tip has long been in economic decline. Its population has shrunk by 25 percent over the last decade. Most residents are on welfare, there are few businesses and streets are lined with crumbling buildings. Local schools are courting bankruptcy.

Residents want change.

"They ought to let the new mayor do his business," said Eddie Smith, as he waited for his car to be repaired at a local garage. Smith, 50, has lived in Cairo all his life and likes the new mayor.

"He shook my hand, asked me if I wanted change, and I said yes," Smith said.

Five of the six city council members opposed Farris' firings. "There are patronage laws in this state," said Joseph "Joey" Thurston, a council member in charge of city finances. He says Farris is paying back his supporters.

The five council members have refused to attend the last two city council meetings -- the most recent on Tuesday -- saying Mayor Farris' decision to move the proceedings to the fire station next to the usual venue violates the state's open meetings laws.

Filed lawsuit

Farris says the usual venue -- a room at city hall -- can't accommodate the 150-200 residents who have suddenly started to attend meetings.

The five council members have filed a lawsuit with Alexander County Circuit Court, asking a judge to require Farris to hold meetings at city hall.

"We're not against, change, we just want him to do what's legal," Thurston said.

They also have asked a judge to throw out Farris' newly appointed staff, saying the appointments aren't legal because the council hasn't ratified them. Neither complaint had been ruled on by Wednesday.

But complicating matters is the fact that only a previous office holder and two city council members can gain access to the city's bank accounts, Farris said.

Only Thurston, the former city clerk and city councilman Bobby Whittaker, who is in charge of police, can sign checks on the account, and none are talking with Farris or his staff.

Farris said that's why he opened a new city bank account to meet payroll and pay bills. He arranged for a monthly $51,000 payment under an existing agreement with a city-owned utility to be paid into the account.

But few seem to know what's going on. While Farris said the city's bills are being paid, Thurston said they aren't. He and Farris both said Wednesday each planned to disburse payroll checks from their separate accounts.

Alexander County State's Attorney Jeffrey Farris has asked the Attorney General's office to review Farris' new account, said agency spokeswoman Melissa Merz. The office frequently steps in when local prosecutors have a conflict of interest.

Paul Farris and Jeffrey Farris are cousins.

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