By Shannon Sessions
BRIER — Brier residents overwhelmed the new City Hall Tuesday night to demand and beg that Mayor Gary Starks resign immediately.
About 100 people crowded into the city’s new, 49-person capacity City Council Chambers with a majority telling Starks exactly how they felt about him, the City Council voting no confidence and the city’s entire parks board resigning in protest.
Starks listened stoically and refused to quit.
“All of us are here because of you, these people are all (upset) and its only going to get worse and its not going to go away,” said resident Kim Smith. “It’s simple, you have a two step process here: hire Paula back and step down.”
Starks fired Paula Swisher, then city clerk-treasurer, two weeks ago. She was the 12th employee to leave Brier since Starks was appointed mayor in October 2003. A majority of the people who either quit or who were fired by Sparks have said they left Brier because of how Starks berated and/or intimidated them.
Longtime Brier residents Dennis and Lorie Nick gave Starks a letter to sign for his resignation. The Nicks said they wanted to make it very easy for him “and it doesn’t even include all the bad stuff.”
The five City Council members who were present voted unanimously no confidence in Starks and also “demanded” he resign immediately. (Council members Carlton “Skip” Gipson and Ed McClenny were absent).
The vote came after more than two hours of non-stop resident and employee testimony. Council member Dale Kaemingk said he didn’t know if he had enough information to vote in favor of this motion.
The audience roared back in disbelief and Kaemingk voted in favor of the motion.
Council member Sasha Doolittle said that while the Council can’t fire the mayor, “it is important that the City Council make this motion of no confidence because it acknowledges all of what these people have said and it shows the City Council isn’t accepting of it.”
After the vote, with Starks again confirming he wouldn’t resign, sounds of exasperation filled the room.
Former longtime Brier mayor Wayne Kaske also asked Starks to step down.
“I’m also asking for your resignation Gary,” Kaske said, “You’re my biggest disappointment, I supported you at first but all you’ve done is dump on people.”
The audience, which appeared collectively against Starks and in favor of Swisher, included Kaske, other residents, former city council members, current employees, former employees, planning and parks board members and visitors from neighboring cities.
During the evening, Starks’ wife, Leona Starks, sat in the front row, keeping eye contact with him throughout the more than three-hour confrontation.
Although many speakers challenged Starks to respond, he spoke sparingly.
“I’ve listened to those people who have spoken, it’s a difficult job,” he said, referring to being mayor. The audience groaned, with one person yelling, “This isn’t difficult, being the mayor of Chicago is difficult.”
Starks said, “I have no intentions of resigning.”
The audience pressed him with, “How can you stay?” “Why don’t you just leave?”
Starks responded: “I took a commitment and an oath and I plan to finish it.”
A resident bellowed, “You’ve let down your oath, sir.”
Starks said many of the charges were lies, with the audience challenging him to provide definition.
“That’s Gary’s motto,” Swisher said, “Lie and deny.”
At that, others in the audience, who hadn’t spoke yet, got up and gave more testimony.
Norma Wilds, who was the city clerk treasurer for 20 years before Starks was appointed, stood up and vouched for what was being said by so many.
“I wasn’t going to talk, but he can’t keep calling people liars like this,” Wilds said. “The only reason I left the city was Gary Starks. The only reason why I didn’t sue, is I care about you people.”
Starks said he couldn’t respond in public to questions about personnel issues.
Swisher stood up in the audience and said, “I’m here and I give you permission to talk about why I was fired, and don’t forget how you did it and how you always talk to me pointing your finger at me, berating me.
“I was fired because I told him to put his finger away and stop talking to me like that. He calls it ‘insubordination,’” Swisher said.
Even the manner in which Starks listened bothered some in the crowd.
Peggy Dare, a longtime Brier resident and former city council member and community activist, among others, said, “It makes me furious to see the mayor frown and look confused as if to say ‘what are you all talking about.’”
Parks Board members stood up and individually spoke out against Starks and talked at length of their personal experiences with Starks and how his administration has not taken responsibility for work that has been left undone in areas such as Brier parks, the library and more.
When Starks refused to resign after the Council’s no-confidence vote, Ken Overstreet, a longtime parks board member who also updates the city’s website among other duties, resigned. Board member Dee Williamson and the other members then individually resigned.
Suggestions were made for a recall vote or stopping Starks’ pay or change his duties and authority. Assistant city attorney, Darrel Johnson, said such changes wouldn’t take effect immediately and a recall vote would likely coincide with the November election, when Starks’ position expires.
Council members Bob Colinas said he was proud of Brier residents. “Brier’s special in this way—this could only happen, like this, in Brier,” he said.