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Reporter's Notebook: Fear and Loathing on the Mental Health Board

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Even though the McHenry County Board will not directly vote to oust the president of the Mental Health Board, there's a message being sent nonetheless.

The County Board tomorrow evening will vote to approve candidates for three open four-year slots on the Mental Health Board, which collects property tax money to help serve those with mental disabilities. The Public Health and Human Services Committee last week, after a dozen interviews spanning two days, chose three newcomers over incumbent Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis.

Read my recent stories here, here and here about the controversy surrounding the Mental Health Board, and how a new public health chairwoman is trying to shake up the status quo.

There's a fourth open one-year seat that, under normal circumstances, would also be voted on tomorrow night. But the committee is at an impasse on a 3-3 tie vote on who to fill it, and must wait for the seventh member to come back from vacation.

• DONNER VS. MESCHINI: The committee is deadlocked on whether to fill the vacancy for a one-year unexpired term with incumbent Connee Meschini or former County Board member Mary Donner, who was the board's liaison to the Mental Health Board until she lost her 2012 re-election bid.

Although committee Chairwoman Donna Kurtz urged members to keep their comments positive before Friday's vote, a few expressed not only why they were backing their candidate, but also why they were opposing the other.

Paula Yensen, who replaced Donner as the County Board's liaison, said she was "really torn" between the two candidates, but ultimately recommended Donner. Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, said she analyzed Meschini's votes on issues and said that they do not match up with her tough talk regarding the need for accountability and reform.

"I've reviewed the minutes for the past year, and I've only seen [yes votes], including increasing the salary of the [Mental Health Board] attorney to $250 an hour," Yensen said.

On the other hand, Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, said that Donner had not been a good liaison when it came to bringing information back to the committee, and said that she felt Donner came off as "passive aggressive" during her candidate interview.

So the committee voted to table the decision until its seventh member, John Hammerand, returns from  his annual winter vacation to cast the tiebreaker.

• ON HAMMERAND'S VACATION: I typically don't write in a story that someone is out of town on a vacation for the same reason I wouldn't want my vacations made public. No one wants to advertise their comings and goings to society's more unsavory elements.

But I did that in this case, and I owe you, the reader, an explanation. Simply put, it was unavoidable.

In this case, Hammerand's absence resulted in a 3-3 tie between two candidates, and he will have to cast the deciding vote when he gets back. What's more, it's news that the deciding vote was absent from the entire selection process, including both candidate interviews.

The other determining factor for me is that Hammerand takes this annual months-long sojourn every winter. It's no secret among board members or the neighborhood in which he lives.

I haven't gotten any hate mail on this, but if you've been wondering about my reasoning, there it is.

• KURTZ IS NOT AMUSED: Kurtz at Friday's committee meeting questioned the judgment of the Mental Health Board's interim executive director for a memo he emailed to committee members questioning her numbers.

Interim Director Todd Schroll, who attended both days of candidate interviews Wednesday and Friday, emailed a memo Wednesday evening to the committee that disputed some of Kurtz's assertions, such as alleging that the Mental Health Board spends 19 percent of its income on administrative costs. Schroll's email is copied to County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, and, interestingly enough, Lee Ellis.

Kurtz called the move inappropriate. She later brought up that Schroll is a candidate to become the permanent executive director, and said he should not insert himself into the process by which the Mental Health Board members – who will one day soon decide who gets the job – are selected.

• THE MAGIC NUMBER IS: So just how much does the Mental Health Board spend on administration?

Kurtz insists, based on looking at the board's budget and spending, that it's 19 percent, and that's not including the debt service on their expanded headquarters.

In a Jan. 30 guest column by Ellis critical of our coverage (you can find the story in question here), he firmly pegged that number at 6 percent. When he sat before the committee last week, he put that number between 6 and 11 percent. If it's on that high end, that means Ellis in his guest column may be off by almost double.

Schroll's memo said the 2012 numbers aren't solid yet, but that administration made up about 12 percent and change of the 2011 budget – he pointed out that a document earlier this month put the number at 11 percent at its most conservative.

• SIGNS POINT TO NO BOARD SHENANIGANS: For the record, the County Board tomorrow evening cannot override the committee's wishes and put Ellis back on the board.

County Board members have a yes-or-no vote to either approve or reject recommended appointees to boards and commissions. If they reject them, it goes back to the committee to do it again. Seeing as how the committee members rejected Ellis after the first of three rounds of voting, I can't imagine they would have a change of heart in the unlikely event that the County Board wants a re-do.

Based on my years covering county government, I would be very surprised if that happens. When there is controversy over a candidate (like here), what usually happens is that the opponents say their peace, the majority tells them to get a grip, and the recommendation overwhelmingly passes.

There are times when there is controversy over the process the committee itself followed (like here), but again, I would be very surprised if that happened this time, given that the committee held two days of hearings and gave its 12 candidates ample time to talk and answer questions.

• KEEP YOUR DAY JOBS: On a personal note to those of you who think it's funny to use the terms "crazy", "nut house," etc. etc. in your comments on my Mental Health Board stories, your careers in comedy are not going to get off the ground.

Leno and Letterman are not going to call, so you're wasting your time sitting by the phone. That watched pot is not going to boil. Trust me on this one.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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