The big story from this week's City Council meeting was supposed to be the sales tax. In a party-line vote, the council raised the city sales tax from 1 to 1.5 percent for a two-year period beginning July 1. The vote marked the first time since the tax was established in the mid-1980s that the rate has gone up.
But that historic vote -- and indeed, all other council business Tuesday night -- was overshadowed by the presence of a legion of citizens whose concerns were less about tax rates than race. The predominantly-black crowd overspilled audience seating and occupied every available space, including the row reserved for media, leaving some reporters standing for the duration of the meeting.
This turnout was largely designed to support Renatta Frazier, an African-American police officer who resigned from the Springfield department after being publicly accused of failing to prevent the rape of a white officer's daughter. An Illinois Times investigation in October 2002 subsequently cleared her name by revealing that the rape had actually occurred before Frazier was dispatched to the scene. Frazier later said she was "genuinely moved to tears" by the turnout at this council meeting.
Most rallied there as the result of a mid-February town hall meeting at Union Baptist Church, where Pastor T. Ray McJunkin presides. McJunkin, who reminded his flock Sunday morning to attend this council meeting, addressed aldermen at the end of the session, as is traditional.
However, one creative contingent found a way to voice its concerns at the very beginning of the evening. In what started off as a routine (if not downright boring) ceremony, Mayor Tim Davlin presented a proclamation to a sorority president who proceeded to turn around and bash him with it.
Not literally. Not quite. But even though Gail Simpson, president of the local Delta Sigma Theta chapter, neither raised her voice nor used a single profane word, her speech to the mayor was nothing short of a tongue-lashing.
"Since you've officially declared this day to be 'Delta Sigma Theta Day' in Springfield, and not many hours are left in the day, I probably need to take full advantage of the time that is left," Simpson began.
Like her sisters in the alumnae chapter, Simpson was dressed in Delta colors -- crimson and cream. Standing in solidarity, they presented a wall of red facing the mayor. Their appearance at council had been scheduled before the Union Baptist meeting, Simpson said later, and the fact that the two groups showed up on the same night was coincidence.
She described the historically-black service sorority as "by no means a fluff organization," telling Davlin that Deltas vote faithfully and influence others to do the same.
"You are not to take this for granted," Simpson said. "We are neither complacent nor apathetic. We do not forget. We can organize in great numbers when called upon to do so."
She listed a host of concerns ranging from the resignation of the city's highest-ranking African-American -- the mayor's former chief of staff, Letitia Dewith-Anderson -- to the civil rights suit filed against the city by black police officers and a perceived lack of city services on the east side.
"When we look back on the election and try to characterize what has happened, words like 'duped,' 'betrayed,' and 'taken for granted' come to mind," she said.
"We are concerned about an unbalanced budget and raising taxes," she added. "But we would gladly give our fair share if everything else were fair and equal. We are here tonight because we are fed up and want more than lip service. We want satisfaction and we want to see a positive change."
The audience gave her a prolonged standing ovation.
After that, the agenda items seemed almost quaintly mundane. Should Springfield annex the upscale subdivision known as Fox Meadows? Will traffic from the three to five vehicles per Fox Meadows home overwhelm the chip-and-oil streets of Leland Grove? Would traffic on Laurel decrease the $350,000 property values of homes in Fox Meadows? Not surprisingly, the council voted to incorporate the posh new homes.
The debate on the sales tax increase was limited to whether it should last one year or two. It didn't take the council long to choose the mo' money option.
When the meeting rolled down to its traditional finale, in which citizens are allowed to address the council on topics not listed on the agenda, only a few speakers approached the microphone.
Archie Lawrence, vice-president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, urged the council to resolve the lawsuit filed by Frazier and other black police officers. McJunkin, the Union Baptist minister, made a more specific plea, repeatedly requesting that the city enter into "court-administered mediation" in the case. He reminded the council that if the lawsuit went to trial and Frazier prevailed, the city would have to pay legal fees to her attorney.
"Your expenses are never less than they are right now," McJunkin said. "It will only cost more tomorrow."
Frazier's attorney, Courtney Cox, was in attendance but did not address the council, even though has done so several times in the past. City officials have recently accused Cox of trying his case in the court of public opinion -- an allegation he has publicly denied.
That perception arose when WICS News Channel 20 aired a two-week long "exclusive investigation" into the Frazier case -- featuring extensive interviews with Cox.
As has been his policy for the past several months, Cox declined to acknowledge or respond to questions from Illinois Times.
Frazier, though, says her lawyer is just "a man doing everything he can to raise awareness" about her case.
"I don't understand why we're still fighting it in 2004," she says. "You would think it should've been taken care of a long time ago."
It's unclear whether the massive show of support had its desired effect on city officials.
Asked about the plea for mediation, Corporation Counsel Jenifer Johnson said that while she is "absolutely open" to the idea of mediation, she is not ready to go that route while the two parties are still in the discovery phase of the lawsuit. "We feel it's too early in the process," she said, adding that no depositions have been taken yet.
Ward 3 Alderman Frank Kunz says his position on the lawsuit hasn't changed since the special meeting he co-sponsored in November 2002, immediately following the Illinois Times' discovery that the allegations against Frazier were bogus.
"I'll stand by my original statements in the very beginning" that SPD's treatment of Frazier was "repugnant," Kunz says. "I've never changed my mind, and I never will."
Ward 7 Alderwoman Judy Yeager has missed the past few Council meetings fighting a particularly persistent case of pneumonia. She phoned from the hospital just as Illinois Times was going to press to say she's feeling better and hopes to be home by the end of the week. Although she still sounded weak, her voice was cheerful. "I just have to ease back into life," she says.