St. Clair County's political landscape became more intriguing this week when Belleville City Clerk Dallas Cook announced he will seek the Republication nomination for Circuit Clerk in next year's general election.
Cook will likely face incumbent Kahalah Dixon Clay, Democrat, who has served as Circuit Clerk since 2011. Clay was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Brendan Kelly, who moved up that year to become State's Attorney. She ran unopposed in 2012.
With nearly two-and-a-half years of public service on his resume, 30-year-old Cook expressed an interest in disrupting "the status quo and shaking up the system" at the St. Clair County Circuit Clerk's office. He said his experience as record keeper at Belleville City Hall helps qualify him for the position.
Further, he said the Circuit Clerk's office needs to be transformed and automated; costs assessed to the public as well as internal costs need to be evaluated and perhaps lowered; and attitudes need to change.
Cook said he was concerned about a work environment in which "the public, attorneys and even judges" are treated disrespectfully.
Specifically, he called it a "cop out" when members of the public - sometimes under extreme duress - are told they have to get "their own help" or that of an attorney to resolve issues at the counter.
He said that even if he had to "walk to Bread Company" and sit down with someone to help them fix a problem, he would.
The "right way" to treat someone - "whether it is a judge or someone on the street, is the same way," he said. "Not better, not less."
Clay has been contacted for comment, but had not returned a call by press time. She has indicated to another media outlet that she intends to run for re-election.
Running as an independent for city clerk in Belleville in 2013, and up against what he describes as the "machine," Cook said in an interview with Lee Presser that it "disgusted" him hearing comments that a person can't run for office unless you "earned your keep" as a precinct committeeman or doing favors of some kind.
"Anybody can run," he said.
He was influenced to run for city office after hearing a mayoral candidate talk about the importance that local government has on peoples' daily lives.
And since coming into office as a political outsider he said he has seen "dirty laundry" and some things that "would astonish you."
In 2013, he defeated 16-year incumbent Linda Fields. He said that the race was an uphill battle, but that by knocking on "every door" and talking to a lot of people, he won, 3,330 to 3,009.
Cook serves as the Belleville's FOIA officer, a role he says he transformed in favor of easier access and more transparency. The city gets approximately 500 requests per year, he said, and FOIA software his office purchased has provided a better way to respond to requests and has made the information available and searchable online.
His view on FOIA: it's a law of last resort. Cook said he doesn't believe that the public should have to file requests if the information sought is readily available and meets release requirements, which he said is most information.
He said he has been a thorn in the side of the city's power structure, and as a result he has had a few knocks along the way, where opponents "put up people to do things to hurt me."
Case in point occurred when he attempted to employ a deputy city clerk who was not on the city payroll after previous deputies moved on to other positions. A power struggle ensued whether the non-unionized deputy could fill the position.
During the heat of the moment, he told a city employee who was getting upset to sit down and do her job or she needed to go home. A call to 9-1-1 was made and five officers responded. No arrests were made.
Cook said he has tried to learn how not to let things like that get under his skin.
He said he has begun circulating nominating petitions and needs approximately 300 to file. He has already reached that number and will file with more than what is required in case they are challenged.