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Mental Health Board poised to fire longtime attorney

Published: Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 6:05 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 11:47 p.m. CDT

CRYSTAL LAKE – The McHenry County Mental Health Board is poised to fire longtime attorney Frank Gosser at a special meeting next week.

The board, under new leadership after a year of significant turnover, was already in the process of finding a replacement, but has decided to terminate Gosser's counsel early and appoint an interim in the meantime, President Robert Routzahn said.

"The current board attorney has lost the confidence and trust of the board, and we need to move in a different direction," Routzahn said.

The meeting to terminate Gosser will be Tuesday morning. It originally was scheduled for late Thursday afternoon, but Routzahn said work schedules of three members would have kept him from having the five-member minimum required for the board to take a vote under the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Routzahn, a critic of Gosser since assuming the board presidency in June, has expressed concerns over his $250-an-hour rate approved late last year by the previous board, and the multiple items for which he bills.

But Routzahn said an unsolicited memo dated Monday in which Gosser criticizes the board's recent decision to pay $49,000 to a struggling social service agency – and states that he could do something about it– was the last straw.

"I would say it's a cumulative effect," Routzahn said.

Gosser could not be reached for comment.

Routzahn said a majority of the board – now seven members with two empty seats due to resignations – agrees it should sever its relationship with Gosser. Routzahn criticized Gosser for the tone he takes with the board and alleges that he acts as "an agent independent of the board," rather than its retained counsel.

Critics of the Mental Health Board have pointed to the amount Gosser has received – he was paid more than $180,000 in legal fees last fiscal year alone – as further proof the agency under previous management has become an out-of-control bureaucracy that spends too much on overhead that should be going to agencies working with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

Seven board members have stepped down or been ousted over the past 12 months. Of the board's current membership, only two have served longer than a year.

The memo cited by Routzahn took the Mental Health Board to task for its Aug. 27 vote to give a one-time payment to The Advantage Group to keep it afloat. The board in 2012 cut off funding to the Crystal Lake-based agency that helps young adults with substance abuse problems after an initial audit revealed fiscal irregularities, including billing for unapproved services, noncompliance with Medicaid regulations and using Mental Health Board funds in an inconsistent manner from its funding agreement.

"As the attorney for the McHenry County Mental Health Board, I am advising you that I am very concerned about the legality of the vote in question," Gosser wrote.

Gosser, who said the board acted "contrary to my prior advice," advised that the payment violates state law governing mental health boards, He also cited an Illinois Supreme Court rule requiring an attorney to refer an action that could violate the law to a higher authority.

The Monday memo coincided with a meeting of the board's Ethics and Compliance Committee, which agreed not to forward Advantage Group any more money until the audit issues are resolved.

The Advantage Group unsuccessfully sued the Mental Health Board in federal court, alleging it was trying to wipe it out so it could give its money to agencies it prefers. The $290,000 the board spent on legal fees last year was almost six times the $50,000 it budgeted – the board this fiscal year reached its $70,000 budget less than halfway into it.

While the board's insurance company retained the attorney who fought the lawsuit, board members last year – prior to any of the new members being seated – decided to pay Gosser to provide legal oversight for the attorney.

McHenry County Board member Paula Yensen, who now holds a seat on the Mental Health Board, began pushing for more oversight of legal spending earlier this year.

Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, questioned the necessity of more than $83,000 in payments to Gosser over a two-year period for things such as reviewing meeting packets and agendas and processing Freedom of Information Act requests.

The board in July approved a rule that forbids an attorney from billing for any service not requested in writing by both the board president and interim Executive Director Todd Schroll. It is meant as a temporary measure until the board obtains new counsel and sets down solid guidelines for what services it will pay.

The Ancel Glink law firm has agreed to represent the board on a $1,000-a-month retainer until the board hires a permanent replacement, Routzahn said. The board issued its bid proposals at its August meeting, with responses due by the end of this month. New counsel could be hired at the October board meeting.

While criticism of the Mental Health Board's budget and spending has gone on for decades, it was not until this year that critics were put in a position to shake up its leadership, namely through post-election changes to the McHenry County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee in charge of recommending appointments to its seats.

The committee earlier this year refused to reappoint the former board president and has chosen candidates who have pledged fiscal reform.

What's next

The McHenry County Mental Health Board plans a special meeting next week to vote to fire longtime attorney Frank Gosser.

The meeting starts at 7 a.m. Tuesday at the board's headquarters, 620 Dakota St., Crystal Lake.

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