East St. Louis city government is in flux after a contentious city council meeting left both officials and residents divided.
On Thursday, the City Council replaced Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks' pick for city manager with former mayor Alvin Parks Jr.
“This is not to say anything bad about the past administration, but the past administration was there for eight years. And if the people wanted him back they would have voted him back,” Jackson-Hicks told St. Louis Public Radio Saturday. “I'm just not sure where we're going from here. I really don't know.”
The city manager is responsible for the day-to-day operations of East St. Louis city government and is arguably more powerful than the mayor. Parks has been offered a $100,000 salary plus a car and benefits. Jackson-Hicks, who is considered a part-time employee, makes $50,000. She was also offered the use of a car and benefits.
Parks said he sees no reason for his appointment to cause bad blood between himself and the new mayor.
“I don’t think there’s bad blood,” Parks said. “We’ve always had a decent working relationship. And I certainly look forward to working with her as the city manager.”
Jackson-Hicks said council members haven’t told her why they replaced her appointee, Tracee Chapman. But, Jackson-Hicks said, she can only assume the three council members who voted against her don’t like the changes she’s trying to put in place.
“We do have some politicians who are very influential in this area and the unfortunate part about that is change is not something they’re really looking to do because it will not benefit their agendas,” Jackson-Hicks said, adding that during her one month as city manager Chapman hired and laid off city personnel based on their qualifications, not their political connections.
“And why did she do that? Because the city has for such a long time suffered because they didn’t have the proper people in place to get the job done,” Jackson-Hicks said.
Over the past week the mayor made her intentions to balance the budget and stop the “waste, abuse, theft and neglect of city resources” clear through a news conference and a series of town halls.
Parks told St. Louis Public Radio he agrees with both those goals, although he’s hesitant to use the word "abuse" before it’s been confirmed.
“In some cases it’s not necessarily things that were done wrong but situations where you clearly see there’s a better way to do what we’ve been doing, then the glaring things that you’ve clearly been doing wrong you’ve got to make a correction. Abuses you not only correct but you go back and punish. If we find those we’ll certainly be dealing with those accordingly,” Parks said, adding that he called for a cash management audit in 2014 to search out abuse and improve best practices.
Parks also said that the budget deficit makes layoffs necessary.
“It’s more than a possibility. It’s a reality. There will be several reductions in force that the city has to make just because we know that there is a budget deficit that has to be addressed,” Parks said.
Jackson-Hicks and Parks said they haven’t spoken since Thursday but plan to meet next week. Both said they are committed to working together.
Meanwhile at East St. Louis’ Lincoln Park on Saturday residents were of two minds about the recent upheaval in city government.
“Everything down there was messed up (before Jackson-Hicks was elected mayor),” said Emmett Brooks. “It was about time for a new change on everything. Give somebody else a chance. It might be better.”
Brooks said he voted for Jackson-Hicks but Parks might work out as city manager as long as he willing to take direction.
“He doesn't have that power no more. He’s got to listen to what somebody else tell him now,” Brooks said.
Toni Whitely, however, said she favors Alvin Parks, although his appointment “was kind of weird.”
“Growing up in this city for my whole life, every mayor that I can think of from Carl Officer on down has not done right by the city. And when Alvin Parks got into office the roads started getting fixed, he started getting on landlords about cutting grass. He was taking care of business in the city,” said Whitely, who was in the park for a back-to-school giveaway sponsored by the East St. Louis firefighter union and Nathan Health Care.
The firefighter union has concerns of their own about East St. Louis city government. The organization filed several lawsuits under Park’s administration over contract disputes, including a 2010 attempt to lay off several firefighters. And the union is keeping a wary eye out for possible future layoffs.
“When they laid off the firefighters in 2010, immediately insurance went up for all the people,” said Kevin Manso, secretary-treasurer of IAFF Local 23. “The call volume we have, it’s going to increase time to runs (if we have lay-offs). We’re already running short-handed as it is.”
The mayor has pointed to past disputes with police and firefighter unions as one of the causes of East St. Louis’ current budget problems.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.