From Bad to Worse in Cairo, Ill.: A Down-on-Its-Luck City of 3,000 Finds Itself Paralyzed By a Bitter 3-Year Feud Between Mayor Paul Farris and the City Council

 

Apr. 3--CAIRO, Ill. -- This troubled riverfront town has been ailing for years, plagued by poverty, citizen flight, decay and racial strife.

Now its government is paralyzed, with four council members rebelling against the mayor. The feud shows how politics can heighten the misery of a small community struggling to survive.

For nearly three years, nothing has been accomplished at council meetings but shouting. Cairo's bills remain unpaid. Ditto for city workers' health-insurance premiums and loans that led a bank to freeze a municipal account. More than a dozen police and fire chiefs, city clerks and treasurers have resigned or been fired by the mayor.

The mayor refers to some council members as "jarheads" and insists that security frisk them and keep their monthly pay locked in a safe. In turn, four council members are suing him. They refuse to approve his initiatives and call him names such as Saddam Hussein.

"Nothing but a dictator," a red-faced Councilman Joseph Thurston screamed at Mayor Paul Farris at a recent meeting to discuss city finances. "Nobody can do anything because you're the king."

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

"Who can be the finance commissioner under an idiot like you who is out of control?" Thurston asked.

The hissing audience knows that the very governing body designed to save Cairo (pronounced Kay-Row) may be hastening its demise.

Neither side seems inclined to budge. There are no signs of compromise or any inclination toward outside intervention for the once proud town of Mark Twain lore, nearly 400 miles south of Chicago at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

"The people who run Cairo need major Dr. Phil intervention," said Stace England, a country blues singer who spent five years in Cairo creating a recently released soundtrack about the town and its troubles. His last cut is titled "Can't We All Get Along."

This boot-heel town of 3,000 people is broke, its schools imperiled, stores shuttered and streets empty. Boarded-up Commercial Street, Cairo's main avenue, has little commerce.

"The government is too dysfunctional to accept outside help and cannot get over its petty differences to do anything to help people," England said. "Meanwhile, the town is gasping to survive."

Save for police, fire, garbage and essential services, the government provides little. With an annual operating budget of some $2.5 million, Cairo is about $500,000 in the red, according to estimates by civic observers. The town has not submitted an audit since 2002, despite requests from the state comptroller, so there is no official count. State officials say they are working with Cairo to make sure the 2003 audit is finished.

Workers get paid despite the council's refusal to approve the payroll because the mayor controls Cairo's purse strings and decides how to disperse funds.

"The government is like the many buildings in Cairo that are merely shells on the outside and have nothing left on the inside," said Kathyrn Ward, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University. She is writing a book about Cairo's turbulence, titled "It Ain't Got There Yet."

More than 21,000 people lived in Cairo in the 1920s when it was a roaring riverfront town. But by the 1950s, Cairo was highly segregated. Whites ran the city.

That set the stage for one of the state's fiercest civil rights battles, which included boycotts and burnings in the 1970s. Ironically, the roots of the current council dispute go back to a major civil rights victory: a 1980 federal decree that was supposed to instill fair government.

In a settlement that year, a federal order imposed a district form of election in Cairo. Whites used to run the town by being elected at large. But after the change in 1980, blacks took council seats by winning in wards.

For nearly a quarter century, mayors and council members worked under the federal decree with no rancor. They struggled, though, with white flight--today Cairo is 67 percent black--and steep economic decline.

Some in Cairo blamed its spiraling demise on a government ripe with cronyism. Farris, whose farm family traces back decades in Cairo, decided to run for mayor in 2003 with the backing of a politically active clergyman.

A salesman of farm machine lubricant products, Farris ran on a reform platform vowing "to clean house." He beat 12-year incumbent James Wilson by a vote of 862-745. Four of Wilson's allies on the council vowed never to work with Farris.

Although Farris is white and three of the four council members fighting him are black, the feud did not begin as racially based, some longtime political observers said. Rather, it is a political power struggle, they said. And both sides look to the 1980 federal decree as a basis for their power.

In Farris' view, the decree put Cairo under a "hybrid" form of government that can be interpreted a number of ways. The way he reads it, the mayor is entitled to be the chief administrator, with veto power. Four of the six council members--some of whom have been on the council for 20 years--interpret the decree another way. They say the mayor can make permanent appointments only with council's consent, that he is simply the administrator of council decisions.

Lawyers and plaintiffs who crafted the decree in 1980 said in interviews that both sides are overreaching. The decree centered on how officials are to be elected. It was not intended to largely change how the government functioned, they said.

Still, minutes after Farris was sworn in on May 1, 2003, he fired most top-level city employees and changed the locks on the council chambers because, he said, he found files missing. The council met in the foyer to denounce him.

Since then, in the name of reform, the mayor has fired and hired more than two dozen department heads. At least a half-dozen fired employees have sued Farris. He has locked horns with the library board by refusing to funnel its tax money, some $70,000, to the board. It is suing Farris too.

Late last year, four council members threatened to quit if Farris did not resign. Farris refused and then held back their pay, saying he considered them "resigned." But Farris cannot cite any law that gives him the power to do so.

Then Farris hired a security team that requires every person entering council chambers to go through metal detectors. Farris says the security is part of the nationwide homeland security effort to combat terrorism. Council members say he is trying to intimidate them.

But Farris said: "I'm not only safeguarding us, this administration, I'm safeguarding the taxpayers."

As the council and mayor deadlock, some 50 town employees are in danger of losing their health insurance because the city has not paid a premium in two years. The insurance carrier decided not to suspend coverage when it ran out last week and is pursuing a settlement in federal court.

Meanwhile, some citizens are demanding outside intervention. They say the dispute has taken on racial overtones and that state officials are ignoring the controversy because Cairo is poor and largely black.

But state law does not provide authority for Illinois officials to forcibly remove a mayor or council member, according to interviews with legal experts and the state attorney general's office.

Change may not come until next year's municipal elections. In the meantime, the mayor is planning his re-election campaign and predicts he has a rosy political future.

mmpossley@tribune.com

etorriero@tribune.com

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