The Cairo Project -- a report by the students of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

What is the Matter, part 1 What is the Matter, part 2 What is the Matter, part three What is the Matter, part four Download PDF
What is the Matter with Cairo?
A diapidated Cairo building.

Photo by Claudette Roulo.

The inside of an abandoned building on Commercial Street.

Part Two

A Dysfunctional Town Government

The February 13, 2007 meeting of the Cairo City Council was held on a cold snowy night. It exemplified civic dysfunction.

A dozen or so residents filed through the city hall doors where police used wands to check them for weapons. The citizens quietly settled into the chairs, chatting amongst themselves. Whites settled on one side of the room, blacks on the other. There was little mingling.

The agenda started with a prayer and was followed by two pages of unfinished business. Items included approving the minutes from nearly every council meeting since January 26, 2006, to approving the bill list from the previous February and the payroll from the previous March.

“Oh, that's nothing,” said former City Clerk Erica Wells. “I finally just stopped putting the unapproved business from 2005 on there. It was just getting too long.”

The mayor and a couple of council members sat at the table. Ten minutes passed with people tapping their pencils and their feet and absently practicing origami with their council agendas. Suddenly the meeting was adjourned before it even began. Not enough members had shown up.

The February 13 meeting wasn't out of the ordinary. In December 2006, the Southeast Missourian reported a special city council meeting convened to discuss an agenda to boost the town's economy. Topics included grants for tearing down ruined buildings and rebuilding sewer lines. However, the newspaper said only one council member attended the meeting, and that was the mayor himself. The meeting was cancelled.

As 2007 elections approached, there were 10 mayoral candidates and 30 candidates for city council. Grassroots democracy seemed to be blooming in a city where government was broken.

“People want a change,” said Amy Farrow, former Chamber of Commerce president and long-time Cairo resident. “It's strange, but democracy and the democratic process are very alive here. I think it's because people are so sick of the way things are being done in Cairo.”

In the election Mayor Farris was voted out of office. Not long after the election, newspaper reports chronicled Farris' decision to burn city records. The former mayor would not comment on that or any other part of this report.

The Illinois Attorney General's office confirms it has conducted a number of investigations in recent years of the irregular town affairs, but it won't go into details.

Big Promises, Few Results

Cairo has attracted the attention of the state and federal government and private groups over the years. The hype has outpaced the results.

On August 30, 1996, the day after President Bill Clinton accepted the nomination for his second term, he became the third president to visit Cairo. The first two were Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 and William Howard Taft in 1909.

President Clinton came bearing promises. He told a crowd on the lawn of the library that his new plan for investing billions in depressed rural areas would bring jobs and greater prosperity to Cairo. He said he wanted to make sure every school child was connected to the information superhighway. And he promised tax credits to help send Cairo's children to school.

A decade later the jobs haven't materialized, the computers in the public schools are often broken or misused and few graduates of Cairo schools make it in college.

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