Mayor resigns; alderman might, too

Friday, March 13, 2009
John Cowden receives well-wishers, including Lincoln County Commissioner Grady Reabis, after announcing his resignation.

PETERSBURG - Mayor John Cowden resigned at the close of a contentious meeting Monday when residents complained to the town board and one alderman told a woman to "shut up" and made an obscene gesture toward a man.

Conflicts have grown as Alderman Brad Dillenback has been asking financial and procedural questions and, according to resident Cheryl Payne, Dillenback "pushes buttons," but the close friend of recently-ousted Alderman Anthony Nichols scolded Alderman Phillip McMillian.

"You're out of line," Payne told McMillian after he raised his middle finger to a man in the audience, Jimmy Gouge, described by Dillenback as a "friend," who was seated next to Lincoln County Commissioner Grady Reabis.

Cowden resigned "not because of anything tonight," he said after the meeting. His reasons include focusing more on work at Calsonic in Shelbyville, his son's purchase of a house that needs painting and two other house-painting tasks.

The resignation and gesture were only two of several notable developments during a two-hour meeting that included:

* Complaints from women about Police Chief Larry Hardin patrolling in an unmarked car with a blue light allegedly placed on the dashboard contrary to directions of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

* Claims by residents that their analysis of town financial records "don't add up." One woman reading a statement to the board about that, Rita Cowen, was told by McMillian to "shut up."

* Decisions to delay: Paying a Fayetteville-based accounting firm for audits conducted on the results of revenue and spending plans after an annual budget expired, and; Hiring a Lewisburg attorney who's made himself available to serve the town that faces legal questions about ousting an alderman and appointing a man who lives beyond the town line.

* Scheduling a 7 p.m. meeting on Monday next week to deal with various matters of unfinished business.

Cowden turned in his keys to Town Hall as he announced, "At this time I think I'm going to step down and resign."

In a 40-minute telephone interview Thursday morning McMillian recalled that Cowden has resigned before and returned to the board. Some officials contend Cowden's resignation must come with a letter saying so and the board must vote to accept it, McMillian said. However, the alderman said Cowden's decision is probably final and there's nothing the board can do about it.

Cowden made his decision on Monday while at work, the now-former mayor said.

"It's been good to work with you," he told the board. "We've got several people who would like to be on the board."

Cowden has served a total of 15 years on the town board, he said. Those years were in different segments since he was appointed once and elected three times. He had about a year and a half left in his last four-year term.

Like Brentwood, members of Petersburg's board run for membership on the board, which then elects one of the members to serve as mayor. The candidate who received the most votes from the at-large city election is typically the individual who is selected as mayor.

Alderman James Owen, who was absent Monday since he's experienced heart trouble, is the town's vice mayor and was therefore seen as Cowden's immediate successor. Cowden noted that Owen has had surgery, "but he'll be back." Another prospective candidate for mayor might be Alderman Kenneth Boles, although Boles left Monday's meeting as the board's discussion with more than two dozen residents reached a crescendo.

Alderman Ricky Wright, the man appointed by the board to succeed Nichols, is seen by McMillian as Cowden's possible successor, according to McMillan's analysis of sentiment among aldermen who don't want to be mayor themselves and who would oppose promoting Dillenback to mayor.

That and appointment of another alderman aren't the only changes in store for Petersburg's Board.

"I'm going to vote on the new mayor and then I'll resign, but ... Dillenback won't get my vote," McMillian said, citing his own health reasons for his decision to resign.

His wife has encouraged his resignation because of a stroke he suffered in December 2007, McMillian said, offering that health condition and possible mini-strokes in recent months as a reason for not remembering exactly why he made the obscene gesture at Gouge.

"Since I've had a stroke, I've had trouble over my temperament," McMillian said. "But it's no excuse for giving a bird. He had to have done something."

McMillian remembers "smirks" from the audience and other behavior, he said, recalling another official telling him to ignore the taunts.

The seating arrangement for aldermen might be changed so McMillian would have his back to the audience, the alderman said. He might change places with the police chief who sits next to Town Recorder Dawn Forlines.

That way he "might not take the meat that's thrown out" to bait the board, McMillian said. However, the mayor "has absolute control over people running their mouths," and Cowden has been described as "too nice a man" for the position in Petersburg, so that led to the obscene gesture.

"As soon as it happened, I said to myself, 'You idiot. Why'd you do that?' I've had darkness take over my temper," McMillian said.

He said he's "asked for help in our prayer meeting because I don't want to be a person like that.

"I took that job to help the town," McMillian said. "We brought it out of bankruptcy."

Cowden has said the town has money in the bank to pay bills. In her prepared remarks, Cowen, the woman who stood up and defended Dillenback and was told to "shut up," explained that Dillenback is not accusing anyone of stealing.

Cowen's statement shows her calculations indicate a deficit in the town's budget, but she stated, "I have not finished with the rest of our funds yet."

As she asked the town board to examine its financial records, some officials replied they have done so at a special meeting with the auditor.

Meanwhile, the meeting set for Monday night was scheduled to give Alderman Wright time to finish his review of the town's financial records. Problems revealed by a state audit of a fiscal year some two years ago were resolved, according to Cowden, however Dillenback again said on Thursday that he concludes that the city treasury is "in the red."