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Mental Health Board president ousted

Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 12:48 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 2:15 p.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board ousted Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis after weeks of controversy and despite a behind-the-scenes campaign waged to keep him.

The County Board on Tuesday approved filling four Mental Health Board vacancies with three newcomers and another incumbent. Ellis was not recommended for reappointment by the Public Health and Human Services Committee, which interviewed 12 candidates for the seats.

Committee Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, a critic of Mental Health Board practices and spending, lauded the vote. She had been concerned over the past several weeks that efforts would be made to override the committee's recommendations.

An attempt by County Board member Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, to oppose one of the appointees was soundly defeated, 21-2.

"I'm really happy that the board, by their support for today's appointments, is also showing their support that new leadership and a new direction needs to be taken by this Mental Health Board," said Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake.

The Mental Health Board has faced growing criticism in recent years that it spends too much of its property-tax levy, created by voters to be disbursed to agencies working with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, on administration and overhead.

Comments made at the end of Tuesday's meeting strongly suggest that Kurtz and other County Board members may seek an outside audit.

Koehler opposed the nomination of Robert Routzahn, and alleged that he will not have the time to dedicate to the new seat because he also is a member of the School District 47 and McHenry County Housing Authority boards.

Koehler also criticized the process by which Kurtz's committee narrowed down the 12 candidates, and alleged it was not transparent. While committee members deliberated and voted in open session, they wrote down their top choices to be tallied in private.

Committee members defended their process, which was vetted by Assistant State's Attorney Jana Blake Dickson, who attended their vote. Member Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, said that the committee conducted all 12 interviews in open session, even though the Open Meetings Act contains a closed-session exemption.

"I think this was an extraordinarily transparent process," Walkup said.

Walkup and Kurtz also pointed out that Ellis got a second chance in the form of a revote. The committee first voted Feb. 15 on the appointments for County Board approval Feb. 19. But Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, sent almost all recommendations back to committee because of a concern, raised by Koehler, that the committees' meeting agendas did not fully comply with new Open Meetings Act requirements.

The committee reconfirmed its vote last Wednesday, although an attempt was made to give Ellis a one-year term. The attempt failed on a 2-5 vote.

The County Board approved Routzahn's appointment, 21-2, with Koehler and County Board Vice Chairman James Heisler, R-Crystal Lake, voting no. Heisler cast the sole vote against giving the one-year unexpired term to incumbent Connee Meschini, but board members approved newcomers Carrie Smith and Heather Murgatroyd on 23-0 votes.

Heisler, who in past years held the County Board's voting seat on the Mental Health Board, praised the public health committee for its work but said he would have liked to have seen Ellis retained.

"I'm going on a primary knowledge of my past liaisonship that I would have preferred a couple of other people," Heisler said.

Mental Health Board members and affiliated agencies have spent the past month trying behind the scenes to fight Ellis' ouster, which ironically could have helped prompt Tuesday's public call for an audit of the board's finances.

Ellis wrote a Northwest Herald guest column in January critical of the paper's coverage and filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the committee’s Feb. 15 deliberations. A board member of the Mental Health Board’s fundraising arm emailed service providers dependent on the tax money the agency disburses and implored them to pressure county elected officials to keep Ellis.

Mental Health Board interim Executive Director Todd Schroll, who is a candidate for the full-time job, emailed committee members during the interview process to challenge some of the numbers presented by Kurtz, and the board delivered large binders of information to all 24 County Board members.

Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, said she did not find the board's binder at all helpful, and said the agency needs an independent audit rather than being included in the annual audit of county government.

"I'm really more confused than I was prior to reading it," Schuster said.

Kurtz, who also is the vice chairwoman of the Finance and Audit Committee, said a conversation will soon start in the finance and public health committees about an outside Mental Health Board audit.

What it means

The McHenry County Board voted Tuesday to approve four appointments to the McHenry County Mental Health Board which did not include the reappointment of President Lee Ellis to another four-year term.

County Board members approved four-year terms for newcomers Robert Routzahn, Carrie Smith and Heather Murgatroyd, and a one-year unexpired term for incumbent Connee Meschini.

How they voted

The board voted, 23-0, to approve Smith and Murgatroyd. Routzahn was approved, 21-2, with Crystal Lake Republicans Ken Koehler and James Heisler voting no. Meschini was approved on a 22-1 vote with Heisler voting no.

County Board member Mary McClellan, R-Holiday Hills, was absent.

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