Supporters of embattled McHenry County Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis are taking advantage of a two-week delay in his ouster to persuade or pressure McHenry County Board members to keep him.
An email sent Thursday to county mental health service providers asks them and their clients to call County Board members ahead of the Public Health and Human Services Committee’s vote Wednesday to fill three vacant seats with newcomers and not Ellis.
At least two County Board members with connections to the mental health service community have been called in recent days regarding whether they would vote for a slate that did not include Ellis.
The calls and the email come from people affiliated with the Mental Health Board and a former mental health agency that collapsed last year despite Mental Health Board financial assistance.
The email to service providers was sent by Linda Mix, a board member of the McHenry County Behavioral Health Foundation, which is the Mental Health Board’s fundraising arm.
The calls to County Board members that the Northwest Herald knows about came from Ellis and from Thomas Webb, board vice chairman of the now-shuttered Family Service and Community Mental Health Center, where Mix also had worked as a volunteer.
Mix’s email implores service providers, which rely heavily on property-tax revenue disbursed by the Mental Health Board, that consumers of mental health services need to call County Board members to “resurrect the vote to include Lee Ellis.” The public health committee had voted Feb. 15 to recommend a new slate for County Board confirmation the following Tuesday, but board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, pulled the appointments and others until March 5 because of concerns over Open Meetings Act compliance.
Mix, who said she did not have time to talk Friday morning, said she’s fighting because the Mental Health Board “helps out the consumers,” and declined to comment further.
However, public health committee Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, questioned the appropriateness of drawing agencies reliant on Mental Health Board funding into a fight over the board’s leadership.
“I think it’s real important that service providers don’t get caught in a war because they are at the mercy of the Mental Health Board for funding in many cases, and their independence and objectivity needs to be respected,” Kurtz said. “From the very beginning, good judgment would dictate that no one would ever place the service provider agencies in a position where they would have to vouch for any member of the Mental Health Board. I’d hate for service providers to be used as pawns for someone else’s political game.”
Critics over the years have alleged that the Mental Health Board has become a bloated bureaucracy that spends far too much tax revenue on administration and overhead that should instead be disbursed to agencies treating the mentally ill and disabled, as it was created by voter referendum to do. About one-third of the $13.15 million the Mental Health Board collected last year stayed internal – it employs more than 30 people and is paying back $3 million in economic stimulus bonds it used to almost quadruple the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters.
Criticism of Mental Health Board spending has increased in the past year over issues such as spending almost $1.8 million to try to save Family Service and contractually paying more than $30,000 for the former executive director to get her doctorate – she left months after receiving it.
Webb said Friday that he reached out to new County Board members Robert Martens Sr., a former CEO of Family Service, and Joe Gottemoller, an attorney hired to move Family Service through the legal process of closing. Webb said he offered his opinion to them and how they vote “is up to their conscience.”
“I’ve known Lee Ellis since before the final demise of Family Service. He sat in on our Finance Committee meetings for over a year – he has experience in the banking industry, and a lot of common sense and a lot of compassion. I think there’s a witch hunt out for him, which I think is despicable, really,” Webb said.
Gottemoller said he told Webb in no uncertain terms that he would respect the committee process and whatever names come out of the public health committee for confirmation.
The County Board cannot vote to add Ellis, but can reject nominees and send them back to committee for reconsideration. The County Board chairman under board rules has the prerogative to add names to the agenda within 48 hours of a meeting, but approval still requires a majority board vote.
“My response to him was that the process is that the committees make the recommendations. That’s what we do,” Gottemoller said. “Assuming it comes back the same way, I’m going to support what the committee [recommends].”
The Mental Health Board lent Family Service about $1.4 million to keep it afloat. It paid an additional $398,000 to North Central Behavioral Health Systems in a last-ditch effort to save Family Service through a merger that fell through.
Martens said he received a call earlier this week from Ellis, who said he wanted to stay on the Mental Health Board and asked Martens if he would be supportive. Martens, who retired from Family Service a year and a half before its collapse after 34 years as CEO, said he responded that he thinks Ellis was a good candidate, but that he is still watching how the situation develops.
“I’ve had experience with him in terms of his knowledge of the budget. He expects a lot from those who are getting funded by the [Mental Health] Board,” Martens said. “He provides some continuity, and some continuity is a good thing, but some change is needed as well. Whether that’s one person or three persons, that’s up to the entire County Board.”
Ellis could not be reached for comment.
Public health committee member Sandra Fay Salgado said that she does not anticipate any significant change of heart when the committee votes again Wednesday morning because its first vote moved forward 6-0. The committee spent nine hours last week openly interviewing 12 candidates for four vacant seats.
Kurtz said she is willing to reopen the process Wednesday if committee members wish, but said that is not her preference, given the work they put into it.
Salgado, R-McHenry, is the human resources director for Pioneer Center for Human Services, the county’s largest social service provider and a vocal critic of Mental Health Board spending.
“Obviously it looks like there’s something of a campaign on this. I don’t feel we did anything secret or meant not to be transparent,” Salgado said. “Hopefully, we’ll have the same result [Wednesday] and move it forward.”
Mix’s email incorrectly alleges that Hill sent the recommendations back to committee because members used secret ballots to cast their votes. Hill pulled the recommended appointments from four committees out of concern that their agendas – which did not explicitly state that a vote would be taken – might not comply with new Illinois Open Meetings Act requirements.
Public health committee members whittled down the 12 nominees on paper and voted openly on their final choices. Assistant State’s Attorney Jana Blake Dickson, who attended the meeting, said doing so does not violate the law. The Open Meetings Act forbids elected officials from casting secret ballots for final votes.