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Sunshine laws and the Mental Health Board vote

(Continued from Page 4)

Time will tell whether good government or the Good Ol' Boys Network was the motivation behind postponing a vote on Mental Health Board nominees.

As I wrote in today's paper, McHenry County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, pulled almost all appointments to boards and commissions Tuesday evening out of concern that the agendas of the committees that made the recommendations did not fully comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

And time will tell whether embattled Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis – who the Public Health and Human Services Committee did not recommend for reappointment – got a second chance or a delaying of the inevitable. The appointments go back to the committee next Wednesday for a re-vote, followed by official confirmation at the County Board's next meeting March 5.

I'll start my post-meeting, behind-the-scenes roundup with a crash course on the possible Open Meetings Act issue.

• DESCRIPTIVE AGENDAS: As I have written about in print and on this blog, a new law took effect Jan. 1 that sets something of a higher standard for government meeting agendas.

The new law improves the Open Meetings Act to require that meeting agendas contain the "general subject matter" of any issue that will be up for a final vote. The Public Health and Human Services Committee met last Wednesday and Friday to interview a dozen candidates, and voted Friday. However, the Friday agenda does not explicitly state that a vote was going to be taken, Assistant State's Attorney Jana Blake Dickson said Tuesday evening. She also was present at Friday's committee meeting,

For the record, Hill pulled a total of seven recommendations to four boards and commissions Tuesday evening. The one she allowed to go forward – an appointment to the emergency telephone board – was clearly labeled as a vote on the agenda of the Law and Justice Committee that moved it forward.

• GLASS HALF FULL: Public health committee Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, was not happy with Hill's decision, and I quoted her in my story as suspecting that something more insidious is afoot.

Is anything weird going on behind the scenes? I can't say. To paraphrase one commenter on my story today, there sure is a lot of squawking, weeping and gnashing of teeth over an unpaid appointment to the Mental Health Board, albeit a Mental Health Board under fire for how it spends its $13 million in tax revenue.

However, I cannot and will not give the appearance that I only favor adherence to sunshine laws when it is journalistically expedient for me to do so.

It would be easy for me to make the wiseguy comment that the County Board member who raised the Open Meetings Act issue, former board Chairman Ken Koehler, held a blatantly illegal meeting during the post-census redistricting process in 2011 – a meeting that was the driving force behind my decision to start this blog.

But in the name of full disclosure, I once or twice asked county officials during the Mental Health Board candidate interviews last week whether the agenda should explicitly state that a vote will be taken. I'm not going to twist Koehler's tail for raising a question that I raised myself.

So if it means this thing has to be re-voted to make sure the letter of the law is followed and the board's decision can withstand a challenge, so be it.

• GLASS HALF EMPTY: That being said, Momma didn't raise no fool, either.

I filed a Freedom of Information Act request this morning for copies of the ballots that public health committee members used last Friday to whittle down their choices from 12 candidates to five.

Between those ballots and Wednesday's re-vote, I will inform you if any committee member has a change of heart.

You know, just in case the Good Ol' Boys Network has some inexplicable interest in who gets on the Mental Health Board.

• RETURN OF THE TIEBREAKER: The dynamic of Wednesday's committee re-vote will be changed somewhat with the return of member John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake.

Hammerand is back from his annual winter vacation, bringing the committee's membership back up to seven, provided they all attend next week's meeting.

Had the County Board approved the committee's three recommendations last night, Hammerand's sole vote next week would have been to break a 3-3 impasse over who to fill a a one-year unexpired term (I wrote about this in greater detail here and blogged about it here). But now Hammerand gets a vote on all four vacancies.

How he feels about the finalists – he missed their interviews – has yet to be seen. But at first blush, Hammerand getting to weigh in does not bode well for Ellis.

Calling Hammerand a taxpayer watchdog is an understatement – when it comes to opposing government spending, he's more of a taxpayer tyrannosaurus. All things being equal, he will very likely side with voting for new blood if there are persistent questions about how the Mental Health Board spends tax money.

If incumbent Connee Meschini and former County Board member Mary Donner are still the finalists for the one-year slot, it will be interesting which way Hammerand's vote will go to break the tie.

• ELLIS' "FIOA" REQUEST: As I wrote in today's article, Ellis within hours of the committee's vote Friday emailed a FOIA to the county – or as he called it on the subject line, a "FIOA on Public Health and human services" [sic].

I FOIAd his FOIA – bet you didn't know you could do that, did you?

He requested the minutes, agendas and transcripts from both days of the committee's deliberations, and the ballots that committee members cast in narrowing down their choices and making their decisions.

Of Ellis' four requests, the ballots are the one that makes the most sense. But some sort of smoking gun will likely be hard to come by, given that Jana Blake Dickson, the assistant state's attorney who oversaw Friday's vote, warned committee members several times that the ballots were public documents under FOIA.

Ellis' FOIAs of the minutes and the agendas make less sense. The agendas for both meetings are not only online, but also were available at both meetings. The minutes will be online as well, perhaps as soon as early next week. The "transcripts" he requested will likely come in the form of the audio recordings of the interviews and deliberations – all nine hours' worth.

Of course, Ellis' FOIA may be irrelevant, given that a new vote is going to be taken.

• TIP OF THE HAT: As long as we're talking transparency, I'm going to wrap this up by giving Kurtz and the Public Health and Human Services Committee credit where credit is due.

The Open Meetings Act contains an exemption that allows governments to go into closed session to deliberate on filling vacant seats to boards and commissions. The committee could have done everything but the formal voting behind closed doors. But they chose to do the whole thing – to show the public just how the sausage is made – in open session.

That's transparency. Way too many McHenry County governments would shut the door on the public for the sole reason that the law says they can.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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