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Reporter's Notebook: McHenry County Board winners and losers

Some newbie County Board members won, some board veterans lost, and health department brass could lose big under a major committee shakeup.

As I wrote over the weekend, the McHenry County Board Committee on Committees on Friday hashed out committee memberships and recommended chairmanships following the Nov. 6 election.

All 24 seats were up because of post-census redistricting, and the nine new members sworn in Dec. 3 make for the largest freshman class in at least 20 years. The first order of business for the new board was to replace four-term incumbent chairman Ken Koehler with Tina Hill, R-Woodstock.

This made for some big changes for the committees in which most of county government's work is done.

So if the full County Board goes along with the recommended structure – and any changes that Hill decides to make – who wins and who loses?

FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE MCDH: If anybody should be sweating the power shakeup, it's the gaffe-prone leadership of the McHenry County Department of Health across the street from the lawmakers.

The assignment of Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, as chairwoman of the Public Health and Human Services Committee is about an in-the-clear message as Hill can send that she has little interest in further mollycoddling of the health department or tolerating its, shall we say, idiosyncrasies.

If the pairing of Hill's name with the health department sounds familiar, it's because Hill is very closely tied to the ongoing McCullom Lake brain cancer lawsuits blaming 33 brain and pituitary tumor cases on air and groundwater pollution from the Rohm and Haas chemical plant in Ringwood. The plaintiffs include her sister and three of her childhood friends.

It's the same alleged cancer cluster that the health department repeatedly maintained does not exist, and whose cancer cluster "study" was exposed as flawed, biased and worthless in a series of award-winning Northwest Herald articles, which also showed that the health department has either routinely ignored or downright declined to share contrary data with the public.

Hill stepped in to force Koehler to seek outside research help, in essence to do the job that she felt the health department botched.

I suspect that the driving force behind appointing Kurtz isn’t just McCullom Lake, or even the previous debacle with the health department's mismanagement of Animal Control. It’s that the buck stops with Hill.

Every time the County Board has to clean up a health budget mess or some overzealous inspector decides to clamp down on a church picnic or other innocuous activity, she gets the nasty call. When a front-page story appears about "government run amok", such as when the Historical Society Museum was told it had to buy an expensive permit to serve coffee and cookies, it's Hill who has to deal with it.

The quote "government run amok" is from a 2009 story I wrote about health department food regulations. Who said it? Why, Hill did. Make that Chairwoman Hill.

From the point of view of Public Health Administrator Patrick McNulty, it gets worse. Kurtz has made a name for herself wanting to make the health department more accountable, and back in 2009 cited the department's handling of the cancer cluster as one of the reasons why she threw her hat into the ring to run for County Board. What's more, the Nov. 6 election cost the department former public health Chairwoman Virginia Peschke, in whose eyes McNulty could do little wrong.

More ominously, Hill sent another signal Friday that doesn't bode well for health department leadership. Health department employees are in fact hired and fired by the Board of Health. But it's the County Board that appoints the health board, and state law allows county boards to remove the members of appointed boards for "abuse and neglect". Hill let slip during Friday's meeting that she's been talking with the state's attorney's office about what constitutes abuse and neglect.

She didn't refer to any particular board, and she didn't mention it during the talk about the public health committee, but wow. Even if no purge comes, Kurtz's chairmanship comes with a voting seat on the health board.

The health department has been working on something of a free pass from scrutiny in recent years. Its fiercest critic on the board, Rick Klasen, died of a heart attack in 2006 and no one since has taken up his mantle. Until now, perhaps.

In the five years since my first McCullom Lake investigative stories ran, board members have privately told me that they would like to see a health department shakeup, and have expressed frustration that top health department leaders know they are “among friends” with the boards that are supposed to be watching them.

Regardless of what if anything happens, the era of downplaying follies and bad press as, "Well, it's the health department, what do you expect?" may very well be done.

HAMMERAND CORKED: Another glaring change is the removal of John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, as chairman of the Liquor and License Committee.

Hammerand was accused by his fellow committee members, the board at large, and the Northwest Herald’s editorial page of intentionally trying to delay a Hebron vineyard’s quest to get a class of license created to be able to open a winery.

After seven months, it finally moved out of committee after the three-member majority on the committee essentially staged a coup d’etat and moved it forward.

Koehler, who served as liquor commissioner as chairman (a responsibility now passed on to Hill), will now lead the committee. As a show of no hard feelings, the vice chairmanship goes to Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, who like Hammerand opposed the winery plan.

UPDATE: Under a modified structure unveiled Dec. 19, the vice chairmanship goes to Robert Nowak, R-Cary, although Evertsen keeps her seat on the committee.

Hammerand keeps his seat on the powerful Finance and Audit Committee. He’s the most fiscally conservative member on the County Board, and local governments, quite frankly, need more Hammerands, not fewer.

UPDATE 2: The structure hashed out last week did not put Hammerand in any leadership role, but the Committee on Committees on Wednesday recommended giving him the vice chairmanship of the Management Services Committee.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: The sheer number of new members requires something that in the past would be unprecedented - at least two freshman members are in line for chairmanships.

Attorney Mary McClellan, R-Holiday Hills, will chair the Human Resources Committee and take the lead on the elected side in dealing with wages and benefits for union and non-union employees. Former chairman John Jung, R-Woodstock, will shift to head the Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.

New board member and McHenry County Farm Bureau President Michele Aavang, R-Woodstock, will head the Natural and Environmental Resources Committee. Former Chairwoman Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, will head the Finance and Audit Committee.

THE CASE OF GOTTEMOLLER V. SCHUSTER: Notice I just wrote that "at least" two County Board freshmen could get chairmanships. There could be a third.

The Committee on Committees suggested that attorney and zoning expert Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, chair the Planning and Development Committee, with board veteran Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, getting the vice chairmanship.

Schuster under the plan hashed out Friday has no chairmanship – she lost leading the Management Services Committee to Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills.

However, Kurtz made a plea Friday for members to reconsider and give Schuster the chairmanship, pointing out her subject matter expertise on land use and zoning. Ultimately, the decision will be up to Hill.

Schuster is well-known for asking tough questions and taking a hard line on development, sustainability and land use issues. And as leader of the planning committee, she would be in a real position to do the same with county government's ever-deepening involvement in the HUD home business. To say Schuster wants the county out of the affordable housing business is an understatement.

So Hill's choice boils down to someone who's friendly to development – when (if?) it comes back – and someone who isn't. On one hand, leadership doesn't want obstructionism – the change in Liquor and License looks like a direct message on that. On the other hand, having a few Ersel Schusters on hand when the developers started calling in the 1980s may have meant that Algonquin Township residents today might not be worrying about one day turning on their taps and nothing coming out.

PROVENZANO BLUEPRINTS: The committee also moved Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, from his chairmanship of the Law and Justice Committee, which he held for a number of terms. Sue Draffkorn, R-Wonder Lake, will slide into that chairmanship, while Provenzano will head the Building Projects Committee. That standing committee is the only one that meets on an as-needed basis, when county government wants to build something, hence the name.

With crowding at the state's attorney's office and the Veteran's Assistance Commission, the committee might get some work in the near future.

SPEAKING OF MCCULLOM LAKE: It was five years ago tomorrow that my first article ran showing just how badly the health department bungled the brain cancer investigation.

It was five years ago next month that health officials and the health board in a drooling, snarling fit screamed about how inaccurate my stories were.

In five years, they haven’t produced squat to back their claim.

Accuracy is important to me. Don’t make me wait a whole decade, boys and girls. Either back it up or admit you chewed my rear end to save all of yours.

MY BAD: Now that I’ve pumped up my credentials, I need to be humbled for a boo-boo I made in Saturday’s story.

I incorrectly wrote that the folks who live on non-dedicated roads want more motor fuel tax. What they want is for their road and bridge tax funds that they pay to go toward maintaining their roads, just like municipal and township residents get.

A lot of these homeowners pay the taxes but don’t see any of that money come back.

My apologies to the concerned taxpayers.
Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com
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