Madison - St. Clair Record

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Cahokia activists seek to restore what they claim is missing from local government: law and order

By Ann Maher | Sep 20, 2016

Ayres and Stevenson

Political dissent Cahokia-style can be costly.

For lifelong resident Donna Ayres, grassroots activism took on a literal and pricey meaning when she recently had to repair her 1991 Ford pickup that was disabled by someone who stuffed dirt and grass in its radiator. The perpetrator also cut a belt engine for good measure.

Ayres and about a half dozen other like-minded Cahokia residents are serving as local government watchdogs in a village they claim has been running amok.

Whether they're speaking out against a newly enacted sales tax rate increase, the creation of "fake" jobs for political insiders, vote fraud they say keeps a ruling class in power or lavish spending in a community where median family income is half the national average, the reason for their involvement they say is to protect the interests of average citizens.

"I didn't really pay much attention until a few years ago," said fellow advocate Jessica McClelland who is engineering her own voter integrity project. She said that in particular, her eyes were opened in the 2015 mayoral election in which Curtis McCall, Jr. defeated incumbent Gary Cornwell. 

"I've been through several elections where we won all the polls, but lost in the absentee world," she said. "During the McCall-Cornwell election, a group of us drove every street in Cahokia, marking down burned or empty houses. We logged those addresses on our walk sheets. That way we knew what to challenge when it came to poll watching."

During the opening of early voting ballots that year, she said her group challenged more than 200 of them. 

Officiating of challenged ballots includes contact by the county election office with the challenged voters who are then required to prove their identity in order for their vote to be counted. McClelland said that according to a news account of the challenge, only 102 of the votes in that challenge were counted. Of those 102 ballots, she said 98 belonged to African-American voters.

"They said that we were suppressing votes," she said. "We were not. We did not know if John Smith was black, white or purple."

County Clerk Tom Holbrook said in a phone interview Tuesday that the Cahokia area is a "hotbed" of complaints and allegations. He said that fraudulent activity in the area has been and will continue to be prosecuted by the State's Attorney.

Holbrook also said that citizens who want to report suspected vote fraud can call a county hotline, which forwards reports to him, as well as to the Justice Department, the FBI and the State's Attorney.

As for tabulating mail-in ballots, he said that multiple layers are built in to the process even before ballots go through optical scanners, with scrutiny from officials in his office, as well as election judges and poll watchers.

In last year's Cahokia municipal election, Holbrook said that "we went out to check and see" if the 200-plus challenged ballots were derived from legitimate voters, and "almost all" or about 185 of those challenged ballots were authentic, he said. 

McClelland, however, maintains, that more than half of the ballots challenged did not generate a response.

"So, I believe they (fraudulent voters) knew they were caught and didn't call the courthouse back," she said.

McClelland also views the upcoming election as an opportunity to bring attention to county-wide voter roll peculiarities, such as 464 voter registrations with birth dates of Jan. 1, 1900.

"These could be legitimate voters," McClelland said. "But why aren't our elected officials and that (county clerk) office contacting these voters to verify information? Birth date is something that is no excuse."

Holbrook said that a recent effort to update the county voter rolls was undertaken in a mailing to approximately 17,000 addresses. Half of the inquiries resulted in responses with new information such as dates of birth and social security numbers - data that wasn't required when older voters registered long ago. 

He also said that voter registrations with birth dates of Jan. 1, 1900, as referenced by McClellan, exist as default dates for older voters who were not required to provide the information when they first registered. 

While acknowledging her group won't be able to come close to verifying the authenticity of all absentee, or mail-in, votes, the Cahokia group will endeavor to do some, McClelland said.

"Donna's (Ayres) going to take the ones I've found, and when, say, she's in Centreville Township 9 she's going to knock that door as she's out campaigning to verify," she said.

Ayres v. Cahokia

Ayres says she doesn't have much money. She lives on a fixed income and occasionally seeks assistance from the local food pantry. She says she is not intimidated or deterred by attempts to silence her - not the vandalism to her truck about two weeks ago, the theft in May of approximately $1,000 worth of personal landscaping equipment or the April 1 purposeful t-bone collision while she was operating an old van around town.

This personal effort to restore fairness to village operations is playing out in court and on the streets.

Last year she sued Village Clerk Rich Duncan and the village trustees who voted for the alleged “unconstitutional” lowering of his salary and the hiring of his wife Deborah Duncan to the position of administrative assistant at $32,000 per year.

The St. Clair County suit had been assigned to Circuit Judge Robert LeChien, who last month dismissed Ayres’ claim with prejudice. She's planning to appeal.

Freedom Coalition 

Ayres and other Cahokia activists are aligned with the Freedom Coalition, a group of Independents, Democrats and Republicans who are opposed to current St. Clair County Democratic office holders.

With her pickup, Ayres has been hauling a trailer loaded with campaign signs and literature of Freedom Coalition-sponsored candidates for the summer parade circuit in communities across the county and in the voting districts of some of the contenders. She sometimes pulls the trailer around the St. Clair County courthouse just to get the attention of office holders inside it.

Ayres' voting record indicates alignment with the Democratic party; she voted in that party's primary elections in 2008 and 2012, but she says she couldn’t vote in this spring’s primary because her voter registration was missing at her precinct.

She said she is not afraid to challenge Democrat friends or people she's known all her life if she perceives they are taking the wrong "bait" from politicians or insiders.

"I'm the one who will call you out," she said. "I like you, but what you're doing is wrong."

Her activism, she said, is inspired by policies that are driving people out of Cahokia.

"My heart is with the people," Ayres said. "I hate to see people move. I'd rather stay and fight."

Political antics are well documented

One of the most vivid examples of political division in the village came last October when Village Board member Jerry Nichols was removed by police from a Cahokia Village Board meeting at the order of Mayor McCall.

Nichols’ removal came after he raised questions about McCall's hiring of several employees, including a personal assistant.

Nichols is one of six trustees on the village board, and his voting record often shows him as a sole dissenter.

He voted against the McCall administration's creation of new jobs and new departments: In July 2015, the board created a Parks Department and Recreation Department and put in place directors earning $29.50 and $29 per hour respectively. The board also appointed a manager of the Sewer and Water Department at $29.50 per hour. And, it created positions of commissioner and deputy commissioner of Public Works at $31 and $30 per hour respectively.

The population of Cahokia is less than 15,000. There exists a famous park, Cahokia Mounds State Park, operated by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, but only one park is operated by the village and it is approximately one acre in size.

Nichols voted against the creation of an administrative assistant position for the mayor, Francella Jackson, who earns $32 per hour. 

McCall earns $39,000 annually for a position that in essence is part time. He works full time at Cahokia High School supervising at-risk teens.McCall has not returned a call seeking comment.

Nichols objected to McCall's "official rules of procedures for addressing village board," enacted in July 2015, in which citizens have to fill out forms in order to speak at meetings, and which limits their speech to two minutes.

Nichols voted against the firing of 10 village employees in June 2015, one of whom included his wife, Rhonda Nichols. The employees fought back and were re-hired in April.

This summer, the village board apparently took a vacation, having gone without meeting in June, July and August. The board re-convened on Sept. 14. At its previous meeting on May 24, Nichols voted against a sales tax increase that other board members passed. The rate went from 2 to 5 percent and went into effect July 1.

At 13.1 percent, a rate that includes state and local taxes, the food and beverage sales tax in Cahokia is the highest, or among the highest in the nation. The site lists Lake Providence, La. as having the highest sales tax rate in the nation, at 12 percent.

“Why is my bill so high?”

Cahokia restaurant owner Kyle Busby said the increased sales tax rate has been tough on his business, and that he is weighing options that include relocating to another community.

"Nobody is for it," said Busby, who has operated Sawmill BBQ at 4060 Mississippi Ave. for a little more than eight years. "In the long run...people are going to go somewhere else where they can pay substantially less."

He said his business relies on local, working class customers. And, he said, they're asking him, "why is my bill so high?"

Busby said he attended the May 24 village board meeting where the food and beverage sales tax rate was increased so that he could speak out against it, but that the village board did not allow for public comment at that meeting.

"It's hard enough as it is to run a restaurant," Busby said. "Five percent going to the city is about what I make in earnings. Instead of it going to me they're making 5 percent and they're doing nothing."

He said he knows of local business owners who have moved out or are planning to move out of Cahokia, or to close.

"We're tired of getting picked on," he said.

Law and order

Kim Diers is another Cahokia activist whose role in trying to bring about accountability in local government has been through the filing of Freedom of Information Act requests and videotaping village board meetings.

She famously captured village police removing Nichols from a board meeting last October at which Nichols protested the mayor's hiring practices, including the hiring of administrative assistant Jackson.

Diers said she has been frustrated that her concerns about irresponsible, if not illegal, practices in Cahokia government are not taken seriously by law enforcement outside the village.

Another Cahokia activist Diane Lenz says she also believes her complaints of improper hiring and use of public funds - such as a Water department truck being used for political activities and contracts steered to cronies - are falling on deaf ears when her concerns are taken to the State's Attorney’s office.

"I've lived here since 1957," she said. "I'm 64 years old. I've seen all of this crap."

She said the lack of interest in what is going on in Cahokia is appalling.

"There is no law and order in Cahokia," she said.

St. Clair County Assistant State's Attorney James Piper provided a statement on behalf of State's Attorney Brendan Kelly:

"The St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office continues to work closely with local, state and federal authorities to investigate all allegations of election fraud and public corruption. Any such allegations are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. So as not to compromise any investigation, we cannot and will not comment on possible pending investigations.

"However, we can say this…our office’s many prosecutions, past and present, involving election fraud and related offenses show an unwavering commitment to prosecuting these types of cases. We strongly encourage any citizen with information concerning election fraud to contact the St. Clair County Clerk’s Office via mail, on-line with the voter integrity hotline or by calling (618) 825-2366."

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