Thebes board battles officials

Monday, December 4, 2006

THEBES, Ill. -- A long-simmering political fight that includes elements of a family feud is underway in this small Mississippi River town of about 450 people.

On one side stand the town clerk and treasurer, who are fighting to keep their jobs and leveling accusations that the town's Board of Trustees routinely violates state open meeting laws and engages in sweetheart deals for friends and relations. On the other side stand most of the trustees, who complain that the clerk and treasurer are uncooperative and fail to take care of their assigned duties.

And on the sidelines is former mayor Scott Bomar, who resigned earlier this year and charges that the board is dominated by a single family determined to thwart progress.

The disagreements are likely to dominate Thursday's regular meeting of the trustees, who have agenda items that include "Do something about clerk" and "Change hours and dates of clerk." The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in the town hall.

When Bomar was elected mayor in April, 2005, he inherited a town beset by a serious financial squeeze. The IRS had frozen town accounts because of $51,000 in unpaid taxes, and Atmos Energy was threatening to cut off gas service for the town because of $57,000 in unpaid bills. The IRS has been satisfied, the gas bill has been paid, and the town had a boost when the historic courthouse, shuttered for years, was reopened for Memorial Day weekend.

Those efforts were unappreciated, Bomar said, and he and the trustees battled so much he decided to quit. He called the board "lawless" in an interview last week.

"They don't abide by the municipal codes, and they don't believe the municipal codes apply to them," Bomar said. "I just got tired of fighting them."

Thebes has six trustees, an elected mayor and an elected clerk. The town treasurer is an appointed position. The town also regularly employs two people to take care of public works and a police officer, but one public works job and the town officer post are currently vacant.

The town clerk and treasurer have been working seven-hour days from the 10th to the 25th of each month, when gas, water and sewer bills are prepared and mailed, Clerk Patty Hale-Osorio said. They work on three days during the first and last weeks of a month, when there are fewer duties to perform and preparing for the monthly Board of Trustees meeting is the main business.

Hale-Osorio was appointed to her job in July 2005 following the resignation of the previous clerk. She's convinced the board wants her to quit so that a relative favored by a husband-and-wife team on the board, J.B. and Tina Sissom, can be appointed in her place. But Hale-Osorio, who is also related to the Sissoms, isn't willing to step down.

"It has been all-out war for the last seven meetings," Hale-Osorio said. "It has been an all-out attack against me and Pat" Knapp, the town treasurer.

The board violates the open meetings law by conducting regular business in closed session and by meeting in small groups to decide how to vote on town business prior to meetings, Hale-Osorio said. And the board members are costing the town vital revenue by allowing friends to establish utility service without paying required deposits, and at times, receiving utilities without paying at all.

In one instance, town water lines were connected to a new home outside town limits without charge to the homeowner, she said.

"We found that there are a couple of people in town, and this is where our maintenance guy comes in, that he is not even reading their meters, and they never paid a deposit or nothing," Hale-0sorio said.

From the board's perspective, it is Hale-Osorio and Knapp who are obstructing town business and trying to prevent the trustees from making progress for the town, board member John Monahan said.

"The main thing is they just aren't cooperating," Monahan said. "They are trying to throw a wrench into everything."

The small groups Hale-Osorio complains about, he said, are board committees working on specific issues. And if the board is making mistakes as it does business, such as overstepping the rules for open meetings, he wants the clerk to warn them.

"She said that even if I am breaking the law she is not going to tell me unless I ask her," Monahan said. "How are you going to run everything if you don't have full cooperation?"

As far as the utility problems, he said he's unaware of any of the issues raised by Hale-Osorio and doesn't condone allowing anyone to avoid their bills. The town board is seeking change because of complaints from residents, he said.

"The people in town don't want her in there," he said. "People say she is really rude to them."

Knapp's hours need to be cut because the board has been asking that materials be prepared for an audit and it hasn't been done, Monahan said.

Residents of Thebes need to attend the board meeting to see for themselves, he said. "We need the public there so we know what to do," he said.

Now that he's out of office, Bomar said he's undecided on whether he'll stay on the sidelines. The paperwork to file for another term, which must be turned in at the end of January, is ready, he said. But he doesn't want another term if it means working with the same board members.

"It would take pretty much a guarantee that none of the board members would keep their seats," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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