Mental Health Board will wait to vote on new director

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Mental Health Board will not vote to appoint a permanent executive director until new members are approved and seated by the McHenry County Board.

Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis reassured County Board members in a memo sent Thursday afternoon that final interviews and the selection process will be postponed to a date chosen by the Mental Health Board’s new membership – a membership that may not include Ellis.

“In an effort to ensure that the soon to be appointed McHenry County Mental Health Board members have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the [board], understand their obligations and roles as board members, and intelligently develop their independent expectations for an executive director, the final interviews and selection process will be deferred to a future date determined by the newly established [Mental Health] Board membership,” Ellis wrote.

The memo came in response to County Board concerns that the Mental Health Board could rush a vote on the new executive the night of March 5, hours after a County Board vote to install new members. Ellis said he will not call a meeting for March 5 as first proposed.

The news came as a relief to Donna Kurtz, chairwoman of the Public Health and Human Services Committee in charge of filling Mental Health Board vacancies. The committee voted Friday to fill three expired seats with newcomers, and not to reappoint Ellis to another four-year term. Ellis is not only the current board president, but also the chairman of the five-member search committee in charge of finding a replacement for former Executive Director Sandy Lewis.

“They are doing exactly what they should be doing. It was very appropriate for them to make this sort of communication, and I commend the Mental Health Board for making this decision,” said Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake.

Critics, including Kurtz and the county’s largest social service agency, have alleged over the years that the Mental Health Board has become a bloated bureaucracy that spends too much of its property-tax revenue on administration and overhead that should instead be passed directly to agencies treating the mentally ill and disabled, as the board was created by voters to do.

About $4.4 million of the Mental Health Board’s $13.15 million in revenue last year stayed internal, according to records. While Kurtz alleges that the Mental Health Board spent 19 percent on administrative costs, Ellis and interim Executive Director Todd Schroll have pegged the number at between 6 percent and 12 percent.

Although Kurtz has been a critic for years, her appointment to the public health committee chairmanship in January by County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, gave her the avenue to pursue change.

The committee last week interviewed a dozen applicants for four Mental Health Board vacancies, including Ellis. Three recommendations moved forward, but Hill decided shortly before Tuesday evening’s confirmation vote to pull almost all appointments over concerns that the committee agendas were not in full compliance with the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Hill sent the recommendations back to committee for revotes, with County Board approval set for March 5.

However, County Administrator Peter Austin told board members that the Mental Health Board was inviting them to a tentative meeting that very night at which the finalists for the job would be introduced, questions asked of them, followed by Mental Health Board members entering closed session to “deliberate.”

County Board member Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, said she is relieved by Ellis’ memo. She was one of several board members worried that either the old board would hire the executive director or the new board would be rushed into a decision.

“I think it’s a prudent thing to do. I think it was wise, and I thank them for this consideration,” Schuster said.

There are two finalists to replace Lewis, who left last November to teach psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University. Schroll, the interim executive director, has applied for the position, but Mental Health Board members will not confirm whether he is a finalist.

Ellis’ memo stated that he will call a special meeting of the search committee after the Mental Health Board’s regular meeting next Tuesday, and stressed that no candidate will be interviewed.

“I anticipate, and will recommend to the Search Committee, that the committee re-evaluate the timeline for final interviews and selection of an executive director. I personally believe that it is essential for the partially newly constituted board to be familiar with the operations of the [Mental Health Board] before proceeding with the interview process,” Ellis wrote.

The Public Health Committee will meet Wednesday morning to vote again to recommend approval of newcomers Robert Routzahn, Carrie Smith and Heather Murgatroyd. If all seven committee members attend, they will be able to break a 3-3 impasse to fill a one-year unexpired term with either incumbent Connie Meschini or former County Board member and Mental Health Board liaison Mary Donner.

Kurtz said she does not anticipate any board members will have a change of heart about the appointments – the committee voted, 6-0, to recommend approval.

“My feeling is, if there is a desire to have withheld the vote simply for a new Open Meetings Act requirement, then nobody should be changing anything relative to the nominees that were openly and honestly chosen by this committee,” Kurtz said.

A new Open Meetings Act provision took effect Jan. 1 requiring meeting agendas to be more specific on final action – while the committee’s Friday agenda listed candidate interviews, it did not specify that a vote would be taken.

What it means

McHenry County Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis said in a Thursday memo that the board will not appoint a new executive director until new board members are chosen and seated by the McHenry County Board.

The McHenry County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee last week recommended three new faces for seats on the nine-member Mental Health Board. They did not select Ellis for reappointment.

What’s next

The committee will meet at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at the county Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock, to revote on its recommendations. The committee’s recommendation will go before the full County Board for approval at its next meeting at 9 a.m. March 5 at the county Administration Building.

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