Were East St. Louis city employees fired for cause, or for politics? Depends who you ask
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
The City of East St. Louis has selected Cantrell Patterson, the former director of the internal affairs department, as its chief of police.
Patterson is filling the vacancy left by Kendall Perry, who either retired or was among the several city department heads fired in January for reasons they say were political.
East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III calls those claims by the former department heads “a slandering insult,” and ran down the reasons several of the high-ranking city employees lost their jobs.
Perry said he learned of his dismissal from the photograph of a letter that he received by text on Jan. 18. Otherwise, he says, he had not previously spoken to either Eastern or Interim City Manager Calvin Riley about losing his job.
The reason for Perry’s firing, the letter said, was “insubordination,” but Perry and others say they lost their jobs because they wouldn’t pledge their support for Eastern’s reelection on April’s consolidated ballot. Eastern is being challenged by Marie Franklin and Charlie Powell III.
Eastern would not talk about the dismissals in January, citing confidentiality of personnel issues. Riley also refused to comment.
After an article about the vacancies appeared at bnd.com on Jan. 25, however, Eastern explained that Perry was not fired at all, but “effectively retired.”
Perry was to attend a disciplinary hearing on Jan. 17, Eastern said, but failed to show up and instead retired a day later.
“He was not terminated, he retired,” Eastern said. “He first sent an email in saying he was on FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act). When the city manager questioned the FMLA status, he sent a subsequent email in saying he retired.
“We accepted that email,” Eastern said.
Perry said he was never notified about any disciplinary hearing and that he had training scheduled on that day. Eastern says he followed proper protocol.
“Again, there’s nothing political about this at all,” Eastern said. “ …I have an employee working in my office right now, Michael “Rump” Roberts, who is supporting a different candidate. He has not been threatened with termination nor terminated because he comes to work and does his job professionally, responsibly and with ethics.”
Former officer suing the city
Others have questioned Perry’s leadership, including eight members of the police department who voted in favor of a no-confidence measure put before members of the now-defunct Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 126.
More recently, former police officer Albert Harris filed a lawsuit against the city “in excess of $50,000,” alleging that the city authorized former East St. Louis Democratic leader Charlie Powell Sr. to tear down a building Harris owned at 1250 State Street, and recover the salvageable bricks for resale. Powell Sr. is the father of one of the candidates running against Eastern.
Though Perry wasn’t specifically mentioned in the complaint, Harris said the former chief gave Powell the go-ahead to begin demolition without checking for the proper permits.
Eastern also blames Perry for the lawsuit the city is now facing.
“We are facing a $50,000 lawsuit based on a police report that was filed by former police officer Albert Harris alleging someone salvaged his property,” Eastern said. “It was never investigated. Perry was the chief.”
Perry has long defended his record as chief of East St. Louis Police, citing lower crime stats. He said he won’t address Eastern’s latest accusations, except to ask “Why is my work record just coming up at election time?”
In the meantime, Patterson’s promotion as Perry’s replacement is on an interim basis, Eastern said.
More allegations by mayor
Besides Perry, Assistant Chief Ranodore Fogg, Public Works Director Tim Lockett, and code enforcement officer Harry Hollingsworth also lost their jobs. And Perry isn’t the only one alleging it’s because he declined to back Eastern’s reelection bid.
Hollingsworth said his dismissal came without warning because he’d never had a formal disciplinary write-up or any other actions taken against him. He said Riley fired him in December, shortly after he’d told Eastern he’d be backing another candidate this April.
Eastern said he’s never lobbied Hollingsworth for his support and that he was fired for putting city gasoline into his personal vehicle.
“That’s another lie and he knows it,” Hollingsworth said. “I have never done anything like that.”
Hollingworth, a member of the St. Clair County Board, said the gasoline was taken by another employee, not him.
Eastern said, “the incident has been verified.”
“It was wrong, wrong, wrong for him to use unauthorized gas in his personal vehicle,” he said. “Rather than pursue charges and bring him shame, we decided to just part ways.”
Lockett also says Eastern hired Riley as interim city manager to fire political opponents. Lockett said the mayor alleged Lockett was misusing contracts to justify his firing. Lockett denied the allegation and said the purchasing agent is responsible for signing off on contracts.
Foggs, a retired Illinois State Police trooper, former East St. Louis police chief and president of the city’s oversight panel, declined comment, other than to say he, too, was surprised by his dismissal. Eastern offered no specific complaints against Foggs other than to say the city wanted to go “in a different direction.”
The "hatchet man"
The terminated employees who spoke to the BND on the record said Riley was hired in December strictly as “a hatchet man.”
Riley was hired during a special council meeting on Dec. 13 to fill in for Carlos Mayfield, who is on a leave of absence due to an undisclosed illness.
Council members Joann Parks and Charles Powell III were not present for the vote on Riley’s hiring because, Parks said, the four-member city council was not properly notified of the special meeting. The Illinois Open Meetings Act mandates that public bodies provide notice and an agenda at least 48 hours prior to any public meeting.
The mayor said he followed the law for calling an emergency special meeting after the president pro tem would not put the police department issue on the agenda.
The other two council members, Tommy Dancy and Ryan Cason, voted in favor of Riley’s hiring, leaving it to Eastern to cast the decisive vote. Neither responded to requests for comment. Dancy, who is chairman of public safety, recommended Perry’s and Foggs’ replacement, according to the mayor.
Asked why Mayfield didn’t act on the complaints against the dismissed employees, Eastern said he didn’t know.
“He had the same information that the interim city manager has,” he said. “Mr. Riley took a look at the individual situations and decided action needed to be taken.”
Carolyn P. Smith is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.