Complex God

The Constitution proves no match for Carl Officer

On Wednesday, May 11, Mayor Carl Officer and the East St. Louis City Council convened two events -- the latter meant to cool down the heat of its predecessor. At 4:30 p.m. the council held a special meeting to remove (by a three to two vote) city manager Alvin Parks and replace him with Parks' administrative assistant, Tina G. Phillips.

Not one person among the crowd in the jam-packed chambers was permitted to offer any input at the meeting, which clocked in at a brisk fifteen minutes. Nor was any explanation offered for Parks' firing, which gave the maneuver the stench of political retribution.

This past December 30, Parks, who holds a master's degree in business administration from Washington University, left a comfortable job as a senior account manager for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity's southwestern Illinois region to take over as East St. Louis' city manager after the city council voted to offer him the job (by a three to two margin). On the short end of this vote were Officer and Karen Cason, who fumed about not having been consulted regarding Parks' appointment by their adversaries on the council, Charlie Powell, Eddie Jackson and Ed Russell.

"Don't get sucked into this crap," Officer said during the contentious meeting. "They will chew you up and spit you out after the April elections. Alvin, I implore you: Don't do this to yourself." Over the next three months, Parks proceeded to implement his benefactors' agenda while Officer stewed, the casualty of a weak-mayor system in which the city manager holds appointive powers and the mayor's vote on the city council is his only substantive legislative function.

Then, at the end of March, Charlie Powell was indicted on five federal counts of election fraud. In the city's April 5 elections, Powell lost his council seat to Delbert Marion, one of two candidates backed by Officer.

That turn of events tilted the council majority to the mayor, who wasted little time freezing the city's tax-increment financing (TIF) funds, forcing the police chief into retirement, replacing all of the city's police and fire commissioners, threatening to quash a financing deal to save East St. Louis' only full-service supermarket -- and chewing up Parks and spitting him out.

Officer's foes say the mayor orchestrated the Parks-for-Phillips swap to compensate for his failure to pass a public ballot measure in April that would have returned East St. Louis government to a strong-mayor format.

"I've got to give Tina G. an opportunity," says Eddie Jackson, who voted against Parks' removal. "But it looks like he's putting in place a person that would allow him to run the city unchecked."

"I told Alvin not to take that job, because it's a snakepit down there," says Parks' uncle, James Parks, who was present at his nephew's ouster. "It's like the Arab-Israeli war. Their vindictiveness outweighs the good of the city. It's never-ending: 'You kill my dog, I'll kill your cat.'"

Leave it to Officer, an ordained minister and licensed mortician, to bury the bodies with dignity. With Parks' bureaucratic corpse still warm, Officer and the council held a prayer and healing service in the city hall rotunda featuring two guest preachers from Florida.

At the time, no one took issue with this event, the second and seemingly less controversial of the council's docket that day. The crowd of about 100 -- mostly women -- swayed peacefully to prerecorded hymns and vocally acknowledged the adroitly selected biblical passages read by Bishop Carlos Malone, who'd come up from Miami to officiate.

"This is a rarity, that a leading city official would call a prayer gathering of people of the city," allowed Malone from his makeshift pulpit, a podium that bore the city seal. "I asked Carl, 'What's the agenda for tonight?' He said, 'Whatever the will of the Lord says, that's the only thing that really matters.'"

Which raises the question: Is God familiar with the U.S. Constitution?

"It's hard to see what would be a more direct endorsement of religion than the mayor and city council sponsoring a prayer and healing meeting and doing it on public property," says Ed Yonka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union's Illinois chapter. "It does raise serious questions about what members of the public are supposed to think if they don't share the religious faith and tradition that the city council is advancing."

While cautioning that the devil is always in the details, Steve Crampton, chief counsel for the ultraconservative, Mississippi-based American Family Association, concedes that the prayer service probably doesn't stand up to the three-part "Lemon Test," derived from a unanimous 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision: An incident or statute must have a secular purpose, can neither advance nor inhibit religion and must not foster an excessive entanglement with religion. Failure on any one of the three counts generally points to a violation of the First Amendment.

Local defense attorney Scott Sherman, who specializes in constitutional law, says Officer's prayer service is "a slam-dunk violation of 'Lemon'."

"It might be a good idea, but it's an illegal idea," says Sherman, who's licensed to practice law in both Missouri and Illinois. "This clearly violates number two of 'Lemon'."

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