Meeting fails to clear air in Cairo

Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Cairo City Councilwoman Carolyn Ponting apologized for the recent behavior of her fellow council members to those attending Tuesday's city council meeting. (Don Frazier)

CAIRO, Ill. -- A corrosive atmosphere choked off any chance of a working relationship between the Cairo City Council and Mayor Paul Farris during a meeting Tuesday that included threats to have police remove residents supporting council members.

Farris and the council members kept their anger with each other under control for most of the regular session. But when a resident sought recognition to speak to the council, Farris argued that the meeting must end because the agenda included no provision for public comment.

Approximately 50 people packed the small council chamber. Another 20 stood in the hallway outside. Four police officers -- two in uniform, two in street clothes -- stood by in case of disorder. Some of Farris' supporters attended, but most were on the side of his opponents.

When Melinda Flowers, sister of a man who died in Cairo police custody, stood to speak when the business agenda was complete, Farris sought to end the meeting.

His opponents on the council raised objections. The agenda was flexible enough to allow public comment even though it was not specifically listed, they said.

"In other words, you just do whatever you want to do," Farris said.

The crowd responded with catcalls and rumblings, and Farris ordered them to be quiet or he would have police act to restore order.

"What is the big difference over having the taxpayers you say you represent speak?" Councilman Bobby Whitaker asked.

When allowed to speak, Flowers said she was pleased to see the council working together and noted that when public comments come after adjournment, they do not have to be included in the council's official record.

After another sharp exchange followed, and Farris again warned the assembled residents: "There are not going to be any more outbursts from the crowd. If I have to call you down one more time, you'll have to leave."

He then ordered police to watch the crowd and remove anyone disobeying his order to remain silent.

The comment was spark enough to start a round of arguing, with council members hammering at Farris' leadership style and Farris fighting back with attacks on council members' ethics. The spectacle moved two council members who so far had stayed out of the fray to outbursts of their own decrying the damage the feud is doing to their town.

"This bickering and jawing and gnawing at each other has to stop," Councilwoman Carolyn Ponting said. "This town is the laughingstock of the whole tri-state area."

Ponting and Councilman Joseph Thurston haven't taken sides in the dispute. Four council members are in open rebellion against Farris -- Bobby Whitaker, Linda Jackson, Sandra Tarver and Elbert "Bo" Purchase.

The insurgents on Dec. 27 announced they would not attend any regular council meetings until Farris quit. He refused. In retaliation, Farris is withholding his opponents' paychecks and plans a court challenge of their right to their seats.

Questioned by reporters about his legal authority to deny the council members their pay, Farris could not cite a city ordinance or state law governing a situation where members boycott the council. That's immaterial, he said, because the four have no right to not attend council meetings as a protest to his policies.

"Where does this money come from?" Farris said. "Do you want to pay people who don't come to work? This is a primary example of where you have the majority holding the city hostage."

After listening to Farris, Whitaker shot back that the mayor has acted illegally. "You are not our boss. You don't dictate who gets paid and who doesn't."

For a half-hour, council members, Farris and city officers discussed city business in civil tones. They learned that an audit of the city books for 2003 will take several more weeks to complete and that the city hopes to win dsmissal of a lawsuit by the town library seeking library tax money.

Both issues cover tension between Farris and the council -- Farris believes the audit will uncover past corruption and his opponents believe he provoked the lawsuit by withholding library funds.

Council members also learned that the city is barely staying afloat financially, operating from month to month. There is no account book or computer database of past-due bills and no sure way of knowing how extensive the city's debts are, clerk Debran Sudduth said.

"I want to know what we haven't paid," Jackson said.

A list of overdue bills was compiled during 2005, Sudduth said, but it is out of date. "It changes every day," he said. "We don't have time to do it."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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