Cairo officials argue, leave insurance in limbo

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

CAIRO, Ill. -- The four city council members in open rebellion against Mayor Paul Farris received another slight Tuesday from their foe -- he left their names off the city payroll list.

The snub was only small part of a rancorous meeting where nothing was approved except a small contract to relocate a decorative clock. The meeting left in limbo the town's employee health insurance contract with the Laborers Health and Welfare Fund. If Cairo doesn't pay a $136,000 bill that is 2 years old by March 31, employees will lose their health coverage.

At first, Councilwoman Linda Jackson made a motion to approve the payroll, except for the salaries of city officials that had been appointed by Farris without council approval. Then, as members looked more closely, they realized their names weren't on the list.

"He took us off, and then had the audacity to submit it to us for approval," Councilman Bobby Whitaker said.

Cairo City Council members receive $600 a month; Farris receives $1,000 a month. Farris has refused to issue checks to Whitaker, Jackson, Elbert "Bo" Purchase and Sandra Tarver since they announced a boycott of meetings in December. They skipped two meetings before changing tactics.

The deadline for approving a financing method to pay the health insurance bill sparked some of the sharpest exchanges of the meeting. Councilman Joseph Thurston hurled increasingly angry insults at Farris, while the mayor needled Thurston.

Farris wants to float a loan to pay the insurance bill. The debt would be guaranteed by property taxes to be paid this fall.

The discussion of the loan descended into an argument over Farris' stewardship of city finances.

"You have driven this city into bankruptcy," Thurston said.

"Do your job," Farris answered. "You are supposed to be the finance commissioner."

Each council member has oversight responsibilities for a city department. Thurston is finance commissioner. In response to Farris, Thurston said he's not been allowed to take steps to control spending.

"Who can be a finance commissioner under an idiot like you who is out of control?" Thurston said. "You are the king. Get out of the way and let us deal with it."

Thurston, who has been harshly critical of Farris in the past, has not been officially allied with the anti-Farris faction. The exchange with the mayor took place after the payroll issue was discussed and after Jackson raised questions why items she requested for Tuesday's agenda at the Feb. 14 meeting were not included.

The agenda items included revised minutes for meetings held in late January where the mayor declared a meeting over and the council members reconvened in the city hall foyer the next evening. Nothing discussed at the second gathering was included in the minutes.

Under questioning from council members, city clerk Debran Sudduth deferred to Farris for guidance. "Quite honestly, I do what I am told," he said. "This man pays me."

Council members did receive, after repeated requests, a list of the town's unpaid bills. The city owes $97,000 to various vendors, with almost 40 percent of it more than 120 days past due. The amounts range from $5.52 to Missouri Power Transmission to $3,854 to Raben Tire.

The final item, which led to the council adjourning, was a discussion of two vetoes returned by Farris. The council believes Farris doesn't have veto power under Illinois law, while he contends he does.

At issue is which laws governing city functions control the town. One item Farris vetoed was a resolution to ask a court to settle the controversy.

After the meeting, Thurston said he realized he had gone too far in his exchange with Farris. "I shouldn't have blown up. But if he is not scared of the decision, why doesn't he let it go to court?"

Farris refused to comment after the meeting.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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