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Mental Health Board looks to rein in legal costs

Published: Saturday, July 20, 2013 8:34 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, July 20, 2013 11:45 p.m. CDT

Two proposals that the embattled McHenry County Mental Health Board will vote on Tuesday take aim at reining in the legal fees it pays.

And under one of the proposals, board attorney Francis Gosser might find himself replaced as its legal counsel.

The board first will vote on a measure to forbid an attorney from billing for any service that is not approved in writing by both interim Executive Director Todd Schroll and new board President Robert Routzahn. It then will vote to direct Schroll to draft a request for proposals so it can bid competitively for legal services.

The board late last year raised Gosser’s hourly rate to $250.

“I think that would be a nice step, to make sure we’re not over-relying or overusing [counsel] for things I think are trivial,” Routzahn said.

About $180,000 of the $290,000 spent on legal fees last fiscal year went to Gosser. The $290,000 for legal expenses was almost six times the $50,000 the board budgeted.

Critics in recent years have accused the Mental Health Board of becoming a bureaucracy that spends too much of its property tax revenue on administration and overhead that should go directly to agencies working with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, as the board was created by voter referendum to do.

Mental Health Board member Paula Yensen had asked members in April to develop a policy for what legal services are needed, bidding competitively for them and increasing oversight of the billing.

Yensen, who holds the County Board’s voting seat on the nine-member Mental Health Board, highlighted 100 payments to Gosser between December 2010 and February 2013, totaling $83,556, for which she questioned the necessity, such as reviewing meeting packets and agendas, and processing Freedom of Information Act requests.

The measure to require dual approval for legal services is a temporary measure through the end of the year until the board develops a concrete set of rules, Routzahn said.

“There have been past conversations regarding how to create a protocol, and communicating concerns to legal counsel regarding how we can contain costs,” said Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills. “Instead of people just picking up the phone and calling for legal counsel, there’s some kind of organized channel of communication as to how we pursue such services.”

Part of the reason behind the recent high costs was to defend the Mental Health Board against a federal lawsuit filed by one of the agencies receiving board funding.

Yensen said the board paid Gosser to provide legal oversight for the insurance company’s attorney – that decision was made before either Yensen or Routzahn were appointed.

The board as of July 1 has paid out $108,504 for legal services this fiscal year, according to its most recent expenditure report, which is more than 50 percent more than the $70,000 it budgeted. The board exceeded its legal budget in March, just four months into the fiscal year, which ends Nov. 30.

Gosser’s most recent legal bill, also on Tuesday’s agenda for approval, is $6,625. He billed $3,000 for services rendered in June, and is owed a previous balance of $3,625. The board paid him $9,875 on July 1 to pay down a $13,500 balance, according to the invoice.

Gosser could not be reached for comment Friday.

Routzahn said he did not know whether Gosser intends to submit a bid to stay on as the board attorney. The bid process likely will be approved next month, with a request for bids to go out in September, according to the board resolution.

Five of the Mental Health Board’s nine seats have changed hands since October, and a vacancy for a sixth opened up earlier this month. Four resigned for various reasons, Yensen’s predecessor lost her re-election bid, and the former board president was not reappointed by the County Board.

A shake-up of County Board committees after the 2012 redistricting election placed a reform-oriented majority on the committee in charge of recommending Mental Health Board appointees.

Criticism of Mental Health Board spending increased in late 2010 when it broke ground on a $3 million expansion to almost quadruple the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters. It further amplified last year when the board spent $1.8 million in a failed effort to save an ailing mental health agency from closing.

The board’s former executive director, Sandy Lewis, quit last year to take a university job, shortly after receiving her doctorate, for which taxpayers paid at least $30,000, according to records obtained through a FOIA request.

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