Over the course of several months in 2011, eight police officers for the city of Vinita Park were fired, resigned or took jobs with other departments. This was an unprecedented amount of turnover in the small north-county town. More than half the department, including the chief, was suddenly gone.
According to a lawsuit filed by five of those officers, Vinita Park city officials terminated or forced the officers out because they are white. African American officers kept their jobs, and the majority of the replacement hires were black also.
The allegation might sound far-fetched, but attorneys for the officers believe they have a smoking gun -- a secretly recorded conversation of Vinita Park mayor James McGee, the subject of this week's cover story. On the tape, McGee speaks in blunt terms about racial tension in the city and his role in the termination of the white police officers.
McGee is the town's first black mayor; he was elected in 2010. His predecessor, Virginia Bira, held the office since 1984.
A year into his term, the racial makeup of the six-member board of aldermen changed also, unseating two of the town's four white office holders and replacing them with African Americans who were very supportive of the mayor. One of the incumbent aldermen, Celeste McGee, is the mayor's wife.
After the board changed, the terminations in the police department rained down. All hirings and firings are handled by a board vote, and though Mayor McGee only votes in the case of a tie, many of his critics say the African American board members always vote the way he wants them to.
The board voted not to reappoint the city's chief of police and to fire four officers. Two more white officers say they were forced to resign and two left for other departments. A year after the first firings, five former officers sued the city for discrimination.
A month later, a former city employee named JaCola Williams made the recording of McGee on a cell phone. Williams had her own troubles with McGee -- she's alleging sexual harassment -- and hoped to record him saying something she could use to prove her case.
On the tape, McGee can be heard bad mouthing the previous, white mayor's administration, lamenting his pay, and talking about the changes in the racial make-up of city hall and the police department.
Continue for a three-minute excerpt and transcription of the tape.
The audio file below is taken from the full, twenty-minute long recording:
McGee: The former mayor didn't do that. The former mayor didn't give a heck about our kids. How many you saw up here working up here when she was up here?
Unidentified male voice: None.
McGee: Negroes was scared to come up here, and I'm going to tell the truth. They were scared to come up here. You didn't see 'em up here. Now I got in, they think they can run over me, but bullshit. They ain't going to run over me....
Unidentified male voice: I know.
McGee: And I was raised on a plantation. And I'm not going to put up with no mess and I keep saying that. Here we getting the city beautiful, you got them damn white people pulling up flowers. Trying to make us look like Wellston and I'll be damned if we going to look like Wellston.
I'm getting pissed off too, because all the shit that I'm doing, people don't appreciate it.They don't appreciate it. Twelve hours, I'm getting paid for four. And you make twice as much as I do. You just there for eight hours. If you work overtime you get paid. I don't. It ain't the pay. It's helping our children. And that's what we got to understand. God put us here for a reason.
Look what the other mayor did. $150,000 bond and didn't do shit with it and I got the proof right here. Come up here sometime and I'll show it to you. See the proof right here. Two engineers on one job, paying 'em top dollar, 170-some dollars an hour. Roads that ain't even ours. Nobody came up here and said diddly-what about it.
Now repaired streets getting [inaudible].... You know, making sure our streets are safe, making sure the city is beautiful, but all I get is complaints. Complaints, complaints, complaints. And I'm getting pretty damn tired of it. That's why I don't have time for mess.
Unidentified male voice: I told Virginia, I say, "Virginia...."
McGee: You know Virginia didn't do shit.... How many black people that was in here contracting 'fore she got here? Not one. All white. All white police department. Then when I get rid of they ass -- Well, they got rid of they self. I didn't get rid of them. "Oh, he fired all the veterans so he can have some niggers up here." I'm going to say it right: house niggers. Up here picketing right with 'em. Don't even know what the hell is going on.
Attorneys for the police officers subpoenaed Williams and got a copy of the recording.
In January, the city settled with the five officers for $726,000. A few weeks later, the board of aldermen fired Williams.
Read the rest of the story in this week's feature: "All Politics is Racial: Mayor James McGee and the race trouble in Vinita Park."
Continue for a copy of the five officers' complaint against Vinita Park.