Change coming to Cairo

Sunday, February 25, 2007
Cairo mayoral candidates and city council candidates, foreground, waited for their chance to speak as city council candidate R.D. Foxworthy addressed the crowd during the Concerned Citizens for the Recovery of Cairo-sponsored candidate forum on Thursday. (Kit Doyle)

CAIRO, Ill. -- The final act of a four-year drama that featured furious scenes of clashing town politicos will be written Tuesday by ordinary voters.

Cairo's municipal primary will determine which leading characters have played their parts the best. With 33 candidates seeking seven offices, the entire cast could change. Many candidates, both for mayor and council, portray the election as crucial to the survival of the impoverished town of 3,600 at the tip of Southern Illinois. It is a town with one grocery, two gas stations, dozens of abandoned and collapsing buildings and few job opportunities.

Mayor Paul Farris faces seven challengers as he seeks a second term. There will be 10 names on the ballot, but one challenger, Councilwoman Carolyn Ponting, withdrew last week, citing poor health. Under an Illinois Supreme Court ruling handed down Friday, a second candidate, Esley Dee Cornelius Jr., can't have his votes counted because he is a convicted felon.

There are sure to be at least three new faces among the six city council members because of Ponting's withdrawal and campaigns by two others seeking different jobs. Councilman Bobby Whitaker, who has led the effort to block Farris, wants to be mayor, and Councilwoman Linda Jackson wants the post of councilman at large.

While the mayor's race has the longest list of candidates, each council seat has drawn at least three candidates. The top two vote-getters in each contest Tuesday will compete in a general election April 17.

A plethora of campaign signs greet cars entering Cairo from the north on Highway 51.

The troubles between Farris and the council began before he took office in May 2003. Council members shifted responsibility for some city assets to appointed boards and denied Farris his choices for offices such as city clerk and city attorney. The clash has repeatedly spilled into the courtroom, with Farris being charged with criminal misuse of city funds -- a charge that was ultimately dropped -- and a stack of lawsuits over the powers, duties and deeds of Farris and city council members.

For the past year, Farris and the council have accomplished little. Every agenda features a list of meeting minutes, town bills and payrolls that haven't been approved. And Farris began withholding the pay of Whitaker, Jackson and two other council members after they briefly staged a protest announcing they would not attend meetings.

As the council and Farris fought, the city's finances have become increasingly precarious as bills for pensions, arbitration hearings won by fired city employees and health insurance premiums went unpaid or lingered until threats of legal action forced payment.

As a result, many of the candidates opposing Farris have made a thorough review of city finances, including an immediate audit of city books, their top priority.

"I have to get an audit done before I know what Cairo needs," said mayoral candidate Joe Griggs, president of the Cairo Board of Education for the past six years. "All I can say is that it doesn't seem like it is going anyplace. I am not here to place blame because enough blame has been placed without me saying anything."

Karl Klein, a former manager of Cairo Public Utilities who is also seeking nomination for mayor, said the need for the audit is urgent. "We've got to get that done as soon as possible," he said. "If not, the state is going to come in and do it, and the state is going to send us the bill."

For Farris, however, the state of the city's finances is less important than the intense feelings, both good and bad, generated during his administration and the likelihood that wholesale change is imminent.

"No matter how the votes shake out, the existing council will be history and that is a victory for this community in itself," Farris said.

Despite adversity, Farris claims a list of accomplishments that he believes justify another four years in office. Those achievements, he said, include restoring the city's pumps and levees to working order, demolition of many dilapidated buildings, better police protection and new signs of industrial interest in the city. "In the last four years, under the adversities I faced from certain individuals, I have proven I am not a quitter," Farris said.

Some jobs under Farris have seen rapid turnover -- a half-dozen police chiefs and three city attorneys and city clerks. One of those clerks, Nancy Philipper, is a former legal secretary who had the job for five months. Philipper contends Farris fired her after she told him she would seek his job and for fulfilling requests for documents from council members. Philipper moved to Cairo in 2005. "I just feel because I am relatively new I am going to bring a new perspective to Cairo."

While Cairo has suffered from years of decline, the first stirrings of industrial revival could be realized in coming years. Bunge Corp., the largest private employer in town, plans a joint-venture biodiesel plant. And another developer, Clean Coal Power Resources Inc. of Louisville, Ky., is exploring the possibility of establishing a coal gasification plant just north of the city.

The city needs a government ready to help land those jobs, not scare them away, Griggs said. "I am not partial to what comes in as long as we know what they are doing is not going to create a health hazard or a safety hazard to our people," he said.

335-6611, extension 126

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