COLLINSVILLE — At first, Brandon Drake was pleased to hear that Collinsville City Hall would be closed Martin Luther King Day.
But that was before he learned the parking lot will still be full.
Drake has lobbied the city for years to honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King by closing. Last year, the city was the center of some controversy as one of eight metro-east municipalities that did not close on MLK Day, while 18 others close.
This year, the doors to Collinsville City Hall will be locked, but employees will still be required to come to work unless they want to burn a vacation day. Employees will do filing, cleaning and other maintenance tasks, but residents will not be able to access city services.
"We felt it was a good first step, since we've never closed City Hall and never really honored the holiday," said Mayor John Miller. "It's a small step toward a bigger movement."
Drake said he was in second grade when Martin Luther King Day was officially made a federal holiday. Since then, he said, he believes all government agencies should honor that decision by closing non-emergency services.
"It can't be a budget issue, because you've had 30 years to account for it in your budget," Drake said.
City manager Scott Williams said he did not believe it was a prudent financial decision to simply grant city employees an extra holiday, but that they intend to raise the issue during contract negotiations when each union contract comes up for renewal. It costs $45,000 to pay the city workers for a day, Williams said.
"If we shut the city down, people still expect to be paid," Miller said. "We're not financially capable of doing that right now."
Williams acknowledged the city would have to pay the workers anyway, whether they're at work or on holiday. However, creating a new holiday means that essential workers such as law enforcement, firefighters and water plant workers would be paid overtime. He estimated that cost at about $15,000.
Drake called the city's decision "a facade," and said it was misleading to the public.
"It's window dressing," he said. "You're going to lock the doors and close the blinds and answer the phones. ... They're closing for image purposes, but not really fulfilling the purpose behind the holiday."
Tim Stark, an associate pastor with Son-Life Church, was one of the organizers of Collinsville's first MLK Day celebration three years ago. He said the purpose of the MLK observance was to chisel away at boundaries between black, white and Latino people in Collinsville.
Stark said it is more important for the city to address discrepancies in minority hiring than it is to close on MLK Day. The last time he ran the numbers, he said, there were only four or five minority employees out of 172 city workers; that was less than 3 percent in a city composed of 15 percent minorities.
But the problem goes beyond the issues of race that King wrestled with in his time, Drake said. "It's not a black holiday, it's about human rights," he said. "It's a major malfunction to have people come in on Martin Luther King Day to clean. It's very disappointing."
Miller acknowledged that some people thought it was "mocking his memory," but insisted that was not the intent.
"I'm sorry if people take it the wrong way," Miller said. "All we're trying to do is do what we can in the best interest of everyone ... You're darned if you do and darned if you don't."
Williams agreed. "The city recognizes that it's time to honor King's legacy," he said. "I know (residents) have strong opinions on this and I appreciate that. I would agree with them that the city's approach is not going far enough... We will work with the unions to make MLK Day a true city holiday."
Stark said that, as the adoptive father of two Latino children, his purpose is more personal.
"It's not about giving away days off or making people adjust their schedules," he said. "I want Collinsville to be a different place 10 years from now. I want to make my town a different place for my son. That's my goal."
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2501.