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Metro East Residents Rally For More Transparency In Government

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon)

A group of citizens fed up with what they call a lack of transparency and responsiveness in St. Clair County government aired a wide variety of concerns today outside the county's headquarters in Belleville.

Metro East Citizens for Social and Economic Progress sprang up in the wake of a drug scandal at the county courthouse. One judge, Joe Christ, fatally overdosed on cocaine. A second, Michael Cook, has pleaded guilty to federal drug and weapons charges. Christ was at a hunting cabin owned by Cook's parents when he died. A former probation officer was also charged.

The protestors want all judges to submit to drug tests. They're also demanding that an out-of-town special prosecutor review whether everyone who should be charged has been.

"I want to know how many people were at that hunting lodge that day," said Melinda Hult, a Belleville councilwoman and a Republican candidate for Illinois state representative. "Why are the indictments sealed? What more are we waiting on? It is time. We have waited. We want answers."

Hult also argued that Cook received special treatment from federal prosecutors because he was a judge.

"When did heroin get to be a misdemeanor?" she asked. A spokesman for Stephen Wigginton, the U.S. attorney handling the case, says simple heroin possession is a misdemeanor at the federal level. Cook will be sentenced Jan. 17.

Others in the crowd were frustrated that judges who were on drugs were handling drug cases that disproportionately sent African-American men to jail.

Rick Brown, a Belleville landlord and activist, was most concerned about the low number of minorities working for the city.

"[Belleville's] population of blacks is now 25.4 percent, and they have 24 full-time employees," he said. "That's 7.5 percent of the workforce. The city does not even make an attempt to hire more black employees."

Belleville's Mayor Mark Eckert did not return a phone call for comment on the city's hiring practices.

Today's crowd was smaller than one that gathered in July for a similar protest. Hult says the colder weather and holiday season held down numbers, but she says people are also worried about getting involved.

"People are disgusted, but they are afraid," she said. "It's real. People's lives and businesses have been ruined when they speak out."

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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