Metro-East News

Police probe food pantry allegations; Cahokia employees file suit over firings

News-Democrat

A day after a tension-filled meeting in Cahokia over the closing of the city’s only food pantry, police have launched an investigation into allegations that the pantry was poorly run.

Police Chief Lawrence Purcell said police are looking into allegations that elderly residents received rotten meat and expired milk, and that some food from the pantry was being sold on the street. Some residents also said they were denied food for which they were eligible.

Also, union employees who were terminated or transferred to new positions filed an unfair labor practices lawsuit Wednesday.

When newly elected Mayor Curtis McCall Jr. entered the packed council chambers Tuesday night he was met with cheers, claps and whistles from some of those who were there. Others booed, heckled and turned their thumbs down. Some shouted out “Recall!”

It was so loud in the room that it was hard to hear what was going on. Some were escorted out of the meeting and others walked out. It was clear that many were upset that the village’s only food pantry was no longer in operation.

Christina Walker, the pantry director for the last two years, was terminated along with seven union workers at Tuesday’s meeting. She has denied the allegations and said she believes she was let go because she ran against the McCall team for a seat on the District 187 school board. She said she received good ratings from the St. Louis Area Food Bank.

“Christina Walker was very rude to seniors and disrespectful,” resident Claudine Belk-Hollingsworth said. “The seniors who arrived early were not allowed to get on the parking lot before 10:30 a.m. She told the group that included me that if anybody got on the lot before 10:30 a.m they would not be served.” Belk-Hollingsworth said she thinks racism is the reason his opponents are giving him a hard time. “I think they’re going after him because he is the first black mayor and they don’t like him. They haven’t given him a chance,”

Walker denied that people are treated rudely. She and the volunteers who work with her “work our butts off to feed these people.”

Resident Jeanie McDougler asked Walker where the two freezers were that she donated to the pantry when Frank Bergman was mayor. Walker told her she moved them out when McCall ordered them to vacate the building, but when she asked McDougler whether she wanted them back, McDougler didn’t respond.

Meanwhile, former Mayor Gary Cornwell confirmed that the lawsuit was filed with the State Labor Relations Board.

“The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the union employees who are a part of Union local 520, because they were not given any reasons for why they were fired. Some of them were told they didn’t do anything and that the mayor wants to take the village in a new direction,” Cornwell said.

“They have union contracts with clauses in them for disciplinary action, discharging procedures and none of these were followed. They were notified on Friday and that they were on paid leave until Tuesday. And, they were terminated at the meeting. The whole thing stinks of political payback,” Cornwell said.

McCall said, “ I can tell you that it is absolutely not political.” He declined comment, citing pending litigation as the reason he could not comment.

Cornwell said two people were not terminated but were transferred to different departments against their will. One of those transferred was Cornwell’s wife, Dawn Cornwell, who has worked for the village for 27 years. And, “Jeanetta Perkins was illegally transferred from code enforcement to a made-up position in the parks department. Christina Walker was a candidate for a school board seat against the McCall Team. She was terminated. Joe Morgan was terminated. Craig Greer, a candidate for the school board against the McCall team was terminated. Sandra McClellan, a candidate for the Commonsfields Water Board was terminated, and Rhonda Nichols, a candidate for the Cahokia School Board was terminated,” Cornwell said.

The vote was 4-2 in favor of the moves. The McCall team has the majority votes on the board. Voting in favor of the terminations were trustees Phyllis Pearson, Jeffrey Radford Sr., Gloria Ware and Melba Sanders. The two dissenters were Jerry Nichols and Joe Weatherford.

Resident Justin Heath was one of those outside. He said his great grandfather was the first to lay sewers in the village. He said he was disappointed in the way the meeting got out of hand. “We had no opportunity to hear what was going on. People were being disrespectful,” he said.

Joi Shewfelt said she received a letter from McCall on Friday and was one of those from the water and sewer department who was terminated.

“He said he was trying to bring diversity to the village of Cahokia. Here I am. I am black and female,” she said. She alleges she was let go because she did not support the McCall team during the election.

Montuelle Prater said he worked for the water and sewer department and was fired without a reason.

“I think it’s political. I was for Mayor Cornwell. I didn’t have any write ups. I was doing a good job. I wanted to go to his office to find out why. I have a 3-year-old son who needs things everyday. I think it is unfair for them not to care about people’s livelihood. They are trying to get rid of anybody that they can to give some of the jobs to people he promised jobs to.”

Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.

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