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Committee debates contract with family connection

WOODSTOCK – A McHenry County Board committee decided that maintaining a contractual relationship with a company that has hired County Board Chairman Ken Koehler’s son is not a deal breaker.

The Transportation Committee at a Friday afternoon special meeting decided to go ahead with awarding two contracts to Mathewson Right Of Way Co., which did not inform the committee during a contract presentation in early November that Kris Koehler was now on its payroll.

While the State’s Attorney’s Office has concluded that no laws are being broken, several committee members criticized company owner Mark Mathewson for deciding against sharing the hiring during the company’s presentation. But others think the issue is not significant. And at least one – Sandra Fay Salgado – said she suspects the controversy has more to do with influencing Monday’s election of the chairman than transparency or good government.

“Over the years, many of us have been in this situation, and I feel that our County Board rules address it completely. I have no issues with this, and I think most of these issues arose because we’re in a season of lobbying for the chairmanship, to be honest with you,” Salgado, R-McHenry, said.

The county has used Mathewson for years to acquire right-of-way for road improvements, and the committee on Nov. 7 agreed to recommend going with Mathewson for two more contracts totaling $130,000. Committee Chairwoman Anna May Miller, R-Cary, said she later learned from Board Chairman Koehler that the firm had hired his son, and that she started receiving phone calls the night of the board vote Nov. 20 to approve the contracts.

Miller pulled both contracts from the agenda until the committee could discuss the matter, she said. Miller denied any political motive for holding Friday’s special meeting.

“What we’re talking about is an ethical issue that everyone in elected office has to be cognizant of in today’s climate,” Miller said.

Koehler, who could not be reached for comment, is expected to face a number of challengers for the chairmanship, including Planning and Development Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, and Management Services Chairwoman Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock. Koehler, chairman since 2004, is running for a fifth two-year term – the board’s 24 members elect the chairman after new members are seated following the November election.

This is not the first time that Kris Koehler’s work has generated controversy with the board. He had served as executive director of a housing agency that had sought federal affordable housing funding through the County Board to build senior living units in McHenry.

Mathewson told the committee that it was “a conscious decision on my part” to not share that Kris Koehler is now on his payroll. He said he did not want to give the appearance that he was trying to curry favor with the board or suggest that the hiring was anything but merit-related. He said that Kris Koehler, who has a real estate background, is years away from doing substantive work for the firm and will never be involved with any county projects while his father is on the board.

“Hiring Kris Koehler, I’m not an idiot – I realized there were complications with doing that,” Mathewson said.

Committee member Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, told Mathewson his decision to keep the hiring to himself – it did not appear on a list of employees provided to the committee – was a mistake.

“To find something out after the fact is more challenging, let me say,” Yensen said.

The state’s attorney’s confidential opinion, summarized by Miller, said that while no laws have been broken, an appearance of impropriety may arise, which committee member Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, seized upon.

“There is quite definitely a perception of wrongdoing. Whether it is real or imagined, it’s a perception, it’s there, and I have a huge problem with that,” she said.

But member Scott Breeden, R-Lakewood, disagreed, calling the whole debate “going overboard.” While Breeden does not share Salgado’s opinion that the situation is politically motivated, he said that the upcoming chairman election has played a role in the nature of the debate.

“I don’t think we need to make anyone who has a relative all of a sudden the bad guy and there’s something going on behind the scenes,” Breeden said.

Miller said the two contracts will go before the board for formal approval in January, and said the committee should explore requiring vendors seeking road contracts to divulge if they employ relatives of county officials.

The makeup of County Board committees is likely to change by January when the chairman makes committee assignments. There are nine new members on the board, the largest freshman class in at least 20 years.

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