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By Dennis Brown
Some have chosen to stay. Take, for instance, Patricia Gibson, an east-side native who in 1994 expanded her small nursing home on State Street to a million-dollar facility next door. Like Parks, Gibson went away to school -- she holds a master's in public health and nursing administration from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill -- yet she never wavered in her intent to return home.
"African Americans, in general, don't have the ability to say where our roots are," Gibson says. "I can't say anything about the tribe I come from, but this is home. East St. Louis is rich in culture and location. It's almost as if it's a silver teapot with tarnish on it. You just need to wipe it off.
"Most people either love East St. Louis or hate it," Gibson concludes. "I love it."
Her affinity is tested often, however, especially as it pertains to tax-increment financing (TIF) funds Gibson and several fellow entrepreneurs claim are being unfairly diverted to outside interests.
"We were approved three times during the [Mayor Debra] Powell administration," says Cedric Taylor, who owns Javon's Fine Dining downtown and Club Casino on the south side and has yet to see a dollar of TIF money. Taylor says that when it comes to TIF funds, small businesses like his and Gibson's are passed up in favor of big developers, who hog the whole pie. "It seems like the only TIF money they release is to the Casino Queenand Foot Locker," he alleges, citing two recent beneficiaries, both of which have ties to out-of-town developer Jim Koman.
"The city's supposed to help local businesses, but TIF dollars go to those who can give the biggest campaign donations," seconds Wade Wicks, a Republican precinct committeeman and Officer supporter who owns a Mobil station at Collinsville Avenue and State Street. "Outsiders come in and raid dollars. Small businessmen don't have a voice."
It was this breed of pent-up street-level frustration that created the perfect scenario for Carl Officer to strike a populist, anti-establishment tone in his successful run for mayor in 2003, a campaign that saw him nudge out machine-backed candidate Eddie Jackson by 233 votes after finishing a distant second in the primary. (East St. Louis employs a nonpartisan runoff system, in which the top two mayoral candidates advance to the general election.)
"It had nothing to do with Carl whatsoever," scoffs Charlie Powell, leader of East St. Louis' legendary Democratic machine. "If you're an Officer in East St. Louis, you're just like a Kennedy. He's royalty. And he's a schmoozer."
But this time Officer arrived at city hall to find a mayor's office that had been stripped of virtually all the authority it wielded during his first go-round. Where once he was surrounded by nineteen staffers and possessed the power to hire and fire at will, nowadays Officer is designated a lone paid civil servant and must rely on volunteers to answer his phone and man the reception area -- duties he occasionally undertakes himself if nobody's available. The city manager -- a position that was created in the wake of Officer's first tenure -- does all the hiring and supervises all city services. These days the office of mayor is considered a part-time job (though interestingly, Officer's annual salary is $50,000 -- $20,000 more than he earned as a full-time mayor in the 1980s).
Beyond the role of symbolic public figurehead, the extent of the mayor's reach is a single vote on the East St. Louis City Council. And considering that Officer spent a great deal of his campaign trashing the council's power brokers -- one of whom was his opponent in the general election -- he now finds himself completely shut out of Powell and Jackson's inner circle and on the losing end of virtually every three-to-two council vote.
"Carl has to get permission to call a cab," quips SIUE's Moore. "And the council won't give him that permission today."
After a year and a half of cranky public gamesmanship, matters came to a brisk boil at the December 30 city council meeting at which Alvin Parks was confirmed as city manager. After interim city manager Bob Storman announced his retirement amid published allegations that he'd exposed himself to a female staff member, Jackson, Powell and council ally Eddie Russell tapped Parks for the $81,000-per-year post without consulting Officer or Karen Cason, the mayor's lone council collaborator.
"I find it personally insulting that you guys would have met and chosen a city manager without offering me, Ms. Cason and the taxpayers a minimum of input," Officer sneered. "I think this government's being run in a cesspool of back-room bullshit."
The mayor then fixed his gaze on Parks. "Don't get sucked into this crap. They will chew you up and spit you out after the April elections," Officer said, referring to the fact that both Powell and Jackson are up for election. "Alvin, I implore you: Don't do this to yourself."
(Counters Parks, who attends the same church as Officer and is a long-time family friend: "If you're calling it a cesspool, why do you want to be a part of it? If it's good enough for you, then why not me?")
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