Effort to keep Ellis on Mental Health Board falls flat

WOODSTOCK – Two members of a McHenry County Board committee made a failed last-ditch effort Wednesday to keep embattled McHenry County Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis from losing his seat.

The Public Health and Human Services Committee rejected, 2-5, a bid by members Anna May Miller, R-Cary, and Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, to appoint Ellis to a one-year unexpired term.

The committee instead stuck by its original plan – and original vote earlier this month – to reject Ellis’ reappointment in favor of new blood.

Wednesday’s vote was a do-over for the most part. The committee first made the recommendations Feb. 15 on a 6-0 vote, with County Board approval scheduled for its meeting four days later.

But County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, sent almost all recommendations for appointments back to their respective committees out of concerns that the committees’ agendas did not fully comply with new Illinois Open Meetings Act requirements.

The appointments – newcomers Robert Routzahn, Heather Murgatroyd and Connie Smith for the three-year terms and incumbent Connee Meschini for the one-year term – will go before the full County Board on Tuesday morning. The full terms advanced on 7-0 votes, while Meschini squeaked by on a 4-3 vote, thanks to the attendance of a previously absent member who broke a 3-3 tie.

Critics in recent years have accused the Mental Health Board of spending too much on administration and overhead instead of giving the money to agencies helping the mentally ill and developmentally disabled. The Mental Health Board now employs more than 30 people – down from almost 50 last year – and is paying back $3 million in economic stimulus bonds it spent to almost quadruple the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters.

While the Mental Health Board doled out $8.7 million last year to client agencies, one-third of its 2012 revenues, or more than $4.4 million, stayed internal, according to year-end fund utilization reports. More than half of that, or about $2.375 million, was allocated to line items for administrative costs.

Miller said that she was “very impressed” by Ellis during his interview – he was the first of a dozen candidates the committee interviewed over two days. While Miller and McCann were part of the 6-0 majority earlier this month, both said they backed giving a seat to Ellis during the process by which committee members narrowed down the field.

“I think he has done an excellent job in leading the Mental Health Board,” Miller said.

However, the majority soundly disagreed with keeping him.

“I think there needs to be a new leaf, a change in the Mental Health Board, a fresh set of eyes at the table so we can move forward,” said Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills. Yensen has held the County Board’s voting seat on the Mental Health Board since January.

County Board members John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, and Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, said there has been too much complaining in recent years from the Mental Health Board’s critics, which include client agencies that get funding, to ignore.

“I don’t think we can take a strong enough action now to bring new focus onto the [Mental Health] Board,” Hammerand said.

Walkup also said he is suspicious of the “very strong pushback” received from the Mental Health Board since it became apparent that Ellis was in danger of losing his unpaid seat.

Ellis wrote a Northwest Herald guest column last month critical of its coverage, has reached out to at least one County Board member regarding his potential vote, and has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the committee’s Feb. 15 deliberations.  

Mental Health Board Interim Executive Director Todd Schroll, who is a candidate for the full-time job, emailed committee members during the interview process to challenge some of the numbers presented by committee Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, and the board last week delivered large binders of information to all 24 County Board members. Also, a board member of the Mental Health Board’s fundraising arm emailed service providers last week imploring them to pressure county elected officials to keep Ellis.

“Methinks thou doth protest too much,” Walkup said.

Hammerand, who was absent from the interview process earlier this month, broke a tie to pick Meschini for the one-year term over Mary Donner, a former member of the County Board who for four years held its voting seat on the Mental Health Board. Hammerand said he heads south each winter for medical reasons because he has trouble breathing in cold weather. He told his fellow committee members that he listened to all nine hours of interviews and deliberations in the days before Wednesday’s vote.

Hammerand sided with Kurtz, Sandra Fay Salgado and Walkup in voting for Meschini – Miller, McCann and Yensen voted for Donner.

While Meschini’s supporters said she has asked tough questions on the Mental Health Board, Donner’s supporters said her votes do not match up with her questioning. Conversely, Meschini’s supporters said that Donner would not provide the independent and skeptical voice the Mental Health Board needs.

The appointments take effect immediately should the County Board approve them Tuesday. Board members cannot add Ellis or anyone else, but can only give an up-or-down vote and send rejected appointments back to committee. Board rules give the chairwoman the ability prior to a meeting to add names, but Hill said Wednesday afternoon that she has no intention of doing so.

“I think the committee did their due diligence, and I will support the committee process,” Hill said.

What it means

The McHenry County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee recommended filling four vacancies on the nine-member McHenry County Mental Health Board over several votes Wednesday morning:

• The committee rejected an attempt by members Anna May Miller, R-Cary, and Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, to fill the one-year unexpired term with embattled Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis, who was not selected by the committee in a vote earlier this month for reappointment. The remaining five committee members – Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, and John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake – voted no.

• The committee voted without discussion, 7-0, to recommend appointing three newcomers – Robert Routzahn, Heather Murgatroyd and Connie Smith – to fill three unexpired four-year terms.

• The committee voted, 4-3, to recommend appointing incumbent Connee Meschini over former County Board member Mary Donner to the one-year unexpired term. The committee earlier this month was deadlocked on a 3-3 tie, but Hammerand, who missed that meeting, broke the tie Wednesday. Hammerand sided with Kurtz, Salgado and Walkup to end the impasse. Miller, McCann and Yensen had voted for Donner.

What’s next

The full County Board is expected to approve the recommendations at its next meeting, which starts at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the county Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.

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