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Vote delayed on Mental Health Board appointments

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 10:49 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 8:14 a.m. CDT

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WOODSTOCK – Embattled Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis may have gotten a reprieve from the McHenry County Board, courtesy of concerns over Illinois Open Meetings Act compliance.

In a surprise move Tuesday evening, County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, pulled all but one appointment from the meeting agenda, including three newcomers to the McHenry County Mental Health Board. The Public Health and Human Services Committee on Friday recommended the appointments, and spurned Ellis' bid for reappointment to a four-year term.

But the delay could put the new Mental Health Board members in a position in which they take their seats the same night that some worry a vote could take place to hire a new executive director.

Hill, acting on the advice of the State's Attorney's Office, said she delayed the appointments to ensure compliance with the Open Meetings Act, which since Jan. 1 has required more descriptive meeting agendas. The committee agendas in question listed the interviews of candidates, but not that a vote would be taken.

Hill said former County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, raised the issue of whether a Tuesday vote would conflict with the law. She pulled a total of seven appointments to four boards and commissions.

The decision means that the public health committee will have to vote again on its recommendations at its meeting next Wednesday, with a County Board confirmation vote March 5.

"It's a transparency issue, and we're going to do things by the rules," Hill said.

However, new public health committee Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, alleged that something more than transparency was afoot. Kurtz heard about Hill's decision just a few hours prior to the meeting.

"It seems arbitrary that the vote is being delayed, and this is exactly the kind of action that makes the public very concerned about the true transparency and the true motive of why we delay things," Kurtz said. "I think there are going to be more questions raised now about why there truly was a delay when it seems there was no reason for this to occur."

In recent years critics, including Kurtz, have accused the Mental Health Board of spending millions in property-tax revenue on overhead and administration instead of giving the money directly to agencies that serve the mentally disabled, as the board was created by voters to do.

Kurtz's committee spent more than nine hours over two meetings last week interviewing a dozen candidates for four open seats. Members voted, 6-0 with one absent, to recommend appointing newcomers Robert Routzahn, Carrie Smith and Heather Murgatroyd to the nine-member Mental Health Board.

Kurtz and several other board members pointed out that the Mental Health Board may reveal its two finalists for executive director the evening of March 5, hours after the full County Board would vote to install new members.

The Mental Health Board meeting, which County Administrator Peter Austin said board members will be invited to, has not yet been posted. Interim Executive Director Todd Schroll, who is applying for the job, attended Tuesday's board meeting but declined to comment.

Mental Health Board Attorney Francis Gosser and member Don Larson said before Tuesday's meeting that nothing was set because they had not heard from the search firm hired to help find a replacement for former director Sandy Lewis. She resigned last year to teach psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Neither Gosser nor Larson would comment on whether Schroll is one of the finalists.

Several County Board members, including Kurtz, said that they do not want a situation in which the outgoing Mental Health Board members get to vote to appoint the permanent executive director, or the new ones have to be rushed into a vote their first night on the job or shortly thereafter.

Public health committee member Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, said she would share those concerns with the Mental Health Board, on which she holds the County Board's voting seat.

County Board member Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, said anything less would be a disservice to the taxpayers.

"Talking about transparency, if this thing gets rushed through or the old board gets to vote on the new director, transparency be damned," Schuster said.

Ellis is not standing idle while his future on the Mental Health Board is in doubt. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request within hours of the committee's vote Friday asking county government for transcripts of both days of candidate interviews and the ballots that committee members used to whittle down their choices.

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