Business, not peace, spurs Cairo council to stop its boycott

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Cairo City Council members feuding with the mayor reversed course Monday, determined to confront their nemesis rather than avoid contact.

Four council members -- a majority of the town board -- announced in December that they would not attend any regular meetings until Mayor Paul Farris resigned. The need to look after city business, not a desire for peace, brought about the change in tactics, councilman Bobby Whitaker said.

"There is no making peace with this man or reconciliation," Whitaker said. "We are going to take care of city business with or without him."

When asked about the council members' decision to attend, Farris said: "Good for them."

He refused further comment.

The four council members -- Whitaker, Linda Jackson, Sandra Tarver and Elbert "Bo" Purchase -- decided to attend tonight's meeting following a rally Saturday for Demetrius Flowers, who was found dead in a Cairo city jail cell on Dec. 14.

Flowers was found hanging by his shoelaces. Three police officers and two dispatchers are on unpaid leave while an investigation of the death is pending.

Approximately 150 people attended the rally, Purchase said. Many said they will also attend the council meeting.

The meeting at 5:30 p.m. in the Cairo City Hall will be the third council meeting in a week. On Thursday, Farris attempted to hold a special meeting to approve a sewer grant. Only one council member -- Carolyn Ponting -- attended and no business was conducted.

After the meeting, Farris announced he had directed police chief John Bosecker to confiscate Whitaker's city-owned pistol. Whitaker is assigned oversight duties for the police department as part of his council job.

In a letter to Whitaker, Farris said the councilman didn't have the required training. Whitaker disagrees, saying he has state-approved training and a permit for the gun and that certification is on file at city hall.

Whitaker said Monday he's keeping the gun. "The mayor seems to think we are employees," he said.

On Friday, the anti-Farris faction held its own special meeting. The council members approved the sewer grant and, after Farris walked out, approved four more items, including the city payroll and a resolution barring Farris from filing lawsuits without council approval.

They also barred the city from paying any city officers appointed by Farris who have not received council approval.

In retaliation, Purchase and Whitaker said, Farris is not allowing council members to pick up their paychecks. Cairo council members are paid $600 a month; Farris receives $1,000 a month. Council members and Farris also receive health benefits and pensions.

Purchase called Alexander County State's Attorney Jeff Farris on Monday to complain about the paychecks being withheld. Keeping the paychecks amounts to theft, he said.

"I don't think we will ever be able to work with this guy," Purchase said.

Jeff Farris, Paul Farris's cousin, said he had been contacted by Purchase about the paychecks and that he "made some telephone calls." He declined to say what other action could be taken if council members are not paid.

Cairo city government operates under a civil rights consent agreement crafted in 1980 in response to a federal lawsuit. The agreement redesigned city leadership, creating council wards based on population and giving the council the right to approve or disapprove mayoral appointments to top city jobs.

When Farris became mayor in 2003, he cleaned house in the city, firing department heads and replacing them with new appointees. None of those appointees have been confirmed in their jobs, Whitaker said.

"It is not that we have anything against those guys, but the previous heads of those departments were wrongfully dismissed and they have a lawsuit pending against Farris," Whitaker said. "If we sanction these appointments, that will mess up their lawsuit."

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