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Government, Politics & Issues

Illinois State Senator Holds Down Mysterious Job At Embattled Metro East Sewer Utility

Illinois State Senator from Cahokia Chris Belt at a news conference in March. Belt wouldn't say what his job is at the public utility that hasn't fixed long-standing sewer issues in Centerville.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Illinois State Senator from Cahokia Chris Belt at a news conference in March. Belt wouldn't say what his job is at the public utility that hasn't fixed long-standing sewer issues in Centerville.

Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water and Sewer District is the public utility for a community plagued by decades of flooding and sewage backing up into resident's homes and yards.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

A state senator from Centreville made nearly $58,500 last year for a position that doesn’t have a job description at a controversial water and sewer district.

Democratic state Sen. Christopher Belt is listed as superintendent of Commonfields of Cahokia Public Water and Sewage District in 2020 documents. He did not respond to the Belleville News-Democrat’s 12 phone calls, text messages and emails over more than a week requesting information about what he does there.

General manager Dennis Traiteur and district board chairman Curtis McCall Sr. both declined to talk about Belt’s role, citing a pending citizen lawsuit against Commonfields over years of flooding issues. Mark Scoggins, the Columbia attorney representing the district, did not immediately know about Belt’s role but confirmed he works there.

Alorton Mayor Jo Ann Reed, who is a cashier, clerk and board secretary for Commonfields, said Belt is heavily involved in the district’s day-to-day operations.

“He comes to work often,” Reed said. “When he’s not in Springfield, he’s at work. He comes to work all the time. Chris is a good worker.”

She added: “If you had to do a survey of people who work here, they’ll tell you that Chris works.”

Belt has acknowledged he was superintendent at the district that serves 7,000 water and sewer customers in Cahokia, Centreville and Alorton, three predominately Black and largely impoverished communities just east of the Mississippi River across from St. Louis.

He mentioned the superintendent job on a 2019 Illinois Senate Democrats video, and listed it on a 2020 economic interest form lawmakers are required to fill out. A list of last year’s Commonfields salaries the BND obtained through an open records request also names him as superintendent. Commonfields provided job descriptions for its 11 other employees — including the general manager — after a separate request, but none for Belt’s position.

The district has been heavily criticized by residents who’ve complained about poor management of the area’s failing sewer system. In 2020, St. Louis-area attorneys Nicole Nelson and Kalila Jackson filed a lawsuit on behalf of two residents in Centreville blaming Commonfields, local governments and public officials for decades of stormwater and raw sewage flooding homes, yards and roads.

Traiteur and McCall are listed as defendants, but Belt is not named individually in the lawsuit. Nelson said she and Jackson did not know Belt was an employee until the BND asked them about it.

“We were very shut out from Commonfields because we couldn’t get any information, so we had to piece together based on what we had,” Nelson said.

Belt is McCall’s brother-in-law. It’s just one family tie in a network of people who share campaign money and political sway in the Centreville area.

McCall is Centreville Township supervisor and is expected to become the first mayor of Cahokia Heights, a new city that will be established by the consolidation of Cahokia, Centreville and Alorton after the April 6 elections. McCall is unopposed.

McCall’s son, Curtis McCall Jr., is the current mayor of Cahokia. Commonfields paid McCall Sr.’s other son, Kerchavian McCall, $27,439 as a laborer who did maintenance and operated equipment for 752 hours, according to 2020 salary documents the BND obtained through the open records request.

Reed was on the Commonfields payroll as a cashier, clerk and board secretary, earning nearly $29,400 in 2020 for 830 hours.

Three Commonfields board members, who were paid $2,000 each in 2020, also serve on the Cahokia Unit School District 187 board: Marilyn Stringfellow, Richard Duncan and Potina Powell. They do not earn a stipend as school board members.

Duncan also is the clerk for the village of Cahokia and his wife, Debra, is its deputy clerk. Debra Duncan will be the new clerk for Cahokia Heights, as she’s part of McCall Sr.’s New Vision party in the upcoming election.

Who is Illinois State Sen. Chris Belt?

Belt has deep ties to the metro-east. He graduated from Lincoln Senior High School in East St. Louis and then completed a bachelor’s degree in history from Illinois State University. He went on to get two master’s degrees — public administration from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and counseling from Lindenwood University in Belleville.

From 2013 to 2015, Belt worked for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Aftercare Services program as the central and southern region’s administrator, and before that worked for the St. Clair County Probation Department.

Prior to becoming a state senator, Belt was board president of Cahokia Unit School District 187. Belt’s sister, Yvonne, is married to the Commonfields board chairman, Curtis McCall Sr.

Belt assumed office as senator in 2019 and earns $69,000 as a part-time legislator.

Reed applauded Belt’s ability to split his time between being a senator and working at Commonfields.

“When we run short and things are tight, Chris does everything he’s asked to do,” Reed said. “If he has to take a bill to the post office, he’ll do that too. He just does what he’s asked to do. If we’re short and someone’s not there, he’s definitely a filler.”

State lawmakers are allowed to have jobs outside of their legislative responsibilities, though if they work for another public entity, the state requires them to disclose it on their statements of economic interest.

“What’s wrong with working and being in public office?” Reed said. “When is that bad? Because everybody can’t do it? I should be able to work where I want to work and run for political office if I want to.”

Centreville residents who’ve faced persistent flooding and stormwater problems have criticized Belt for not being accessible.

Earlier this month, Belt did not attend a virtual town hall meeting aimed at seeking answers on Centreville’s flooding issues. Belt, along with other local officials, have also been absent from meetings held by Centreville Citizens for Change, a group of residents demanding solutions.

In July, Belt did attend a meeting with Sen. Tammy Duckworth about the crisis in Centreville, but that meeting wasn’t open to residents.

Belt, McCall and campaign finance

State campaign finance records also show connections between Belt, McCall and committees related to Commonfields.

McCall is the chairperson for Belt’s campaign finance committee, Friends of Christopher Belt, and between 2018 and 2020, Belt’s committee contributed $16,850 to another committee chaired by McCall.

That committee — Centreville Township Citizens for Better Government — was formed in 2016 to support 18 candidates in various Centreville-area elections, including Belt and McCall. McCall individually loaned $80,557 to the committee between 2017 and 2020. Crowder & Scoggins, the firm representing Commonfields, contributed $26,000 from 2016 to 2020.

In 2019, Friends of Christopher Belt contributed $5,000 to yet another committee, Citizens for Commonfields Water District Trustees, to elect McCall to the Commonfields board.

Traiteur, the general manager, contributed $6,500 to Centreville Township Citizens for Better Government from 2016 to 2020. Belt, Scoggins and Traiteur have also contributed individually to Citizens for Curtis McCall — $1,100 from Belt, $5,000 from Scoggins and $11,500 from Traiteur since 2012.

The names of other Commonfields board members and employees also appear as donors to Belt and McCall’s committees.

Commonfields of Cahokia’s future

Dissolving Commonfields of Cahokia is part of the consolidation plan for Cahokia Heights and will be included in a referendum on the April 6 ballot, which will ask voters if they want the district to be eliminated. It’s uncertain whether the district will be replaced by another entity.

The village of Cahokia has its own water and sewer department, and its geography and responsibilities overlap with the Commonfields district, according to Lynn Matchingtouch, manager of the Village of Cahokia Water and Sewer Department.

“A lot of our customers intertwine,” Matchingtouch said. “Commonfields of Cahokia will have the water, the village of Cahokia will have the sewer, or vice versa. Then we all at some point have just all water and sewer customers and we all just have either all water customers or we all just have sewer customers.”

Belt’s future role, and that of other Commonfields employees and board members, has yet to be publicly specified.

The senator’s next economic interest statement is due May 1.

Kelsey Landis, DeAsia Paige and Kavahn Mansouri are a reporters with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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