Judge tosses suit seeking ouster of East St. Louis mayor, council; activist vows to fight on

News-DemocratFebruary 21, 2014 

A St. Clair County judge has dismissed a lawsuit from activist Matt Hawkins seeking the removal of the mayor and council members of East St. Louis, but Hawkins said he plans to continue the legal fight.

Hawkins, president of the public watchdog group Civic Alliance of East St. Louis, is representing himself in a lawsuit alleging the elected officials violated the state's Freedom of Information Act and state laws administering tax increment financing (TIF) districts. East St. Louis City Attorney Michael Wagner disputes the allegations and called the lawsuit frivolous.

Hawkins and Wagner argued their cases before St. Clair County Associate Judge Chris Kolker on Friday. Kolker dismissed the lawsuit but allowed Hawkins to amend his complaint and refile the lawsuit within 30 days.

The city officials Hawkins' seeks removed from office include Mayor Alvin Parks and council members Roy Mosley, Emeka Jackson, Latoya Greenwood and Robert Eastern III.

Hawkins also asked the judge to levy $435,000 in fines upon the city, which would be given to the Civic Alliance, and $100,000 in damages allegedly stemming from the misuse of TIF funds from 2009 until 2013.

Kolker said Hawkins was requesting him to make the unprecedented ruling of removing elected officials without those officials being convicted of a crime. Without such a conviction, Kolker said removing them from office or fining them in a civil ruling would violate the officials' Constitutional rights to due process and take away voters' right to the democratic process.

Hawkins said the lawsuit was legitimate and he would address the judge's concerns in an amended lawsuit. He added that while the suit was not perfect, "what we have perfected is commitment."

Wagner said the city will file a countersuit against Hawkins seeking to recoup legal costs should he continue legal action against the city.

Wagner argued in court that Hawkins is asking the judge to take action beyond what state law allows.

For example, Hawkins argues the judge should remove the elected officials for violating the state law on criminal misconduct. Wagner states only the state's attorney or other law enforcement can pursue legal action under criminal statutes.

East St. Louis collected about $98.1 million in TIF funds in the past nine years, according to county property tax records, the second-largest amount of TIF funds in St. Clair and Madison counties during that time. City officials create TIF districts as a way to reimburse developers for construction costs through the collection of increases in property taxes.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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