Mental Health Board says they will stick to pledge

The McHenry County Mental Health Board will keep its pledge to wait until new members are seated and acclimated before proceeding with hiring a new executive director.

The board and its Search Committee rescheduled a meeting canceled because of last week’s snowstorm to tonight, a day before a McHenry County Board vote to appoint three newcomers and deny reappointment to Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis. But mental health officials will only discuss the next steps in the hiring process this evening, and will not interview finalists or make a decision.

County Board members last month expressed concern that the Mental Health Board would rush the process as it became clear that Ellis would most likely not be recommended for reappointment by the County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee, which is pursuing reform of the agency.

County Board member Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, now holds the board’s voting seat on the Mental Health Board. She relayed her colleagues’ concerns to the Mental Health Board.

“I can assure you that the process is being delayed until the new Mental Health Board members are seated, and then we’ll move forward,” Yensen said Thursday.

Critics in recent years have accused the Mental Health Board of becoming a bureaucracy that spends too much of its property-tax revenue on administration and overhead that should be going directly to social service agencies treating the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, as it was created by voters to do.

Preliminary end-of-year financial statements show that the Mental Health Board kept about one-third of the $13.1 million it received last year. It now employs more than 30 people – down from almost 50 a year ago due to the end of a grant – and is paying off $3 million in economic stimulus bonds it issued to almost quadruple the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters.

Scrutiny has increased over the past year as the Mental Health Board spent almost $1.8 million to unsuccessfully save Family Service and Community Mental Health Center from closing last June.

The executive director position has been vacant since November – the Mental Health Board last summer announced the resignation of former Executive Director Sandy Lewis and the retirements of two other top administrators.

Sixteen people applied earlier this year for four open seats on the Mental Health Board. The public health committee, now under the leadership of board member and longtime Mental Health Board critic Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, interviewed 12 of them over two meetings and nine hours. Committee members voted Feb. 15 to recommend three newcomers to four-year terms over Ellis.

The County Board was supposed to approve the appointments Feb. 19. But Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, sent almost all appointments back to their committees for revotes because of concerns raised by several board members that the committees’ agendas, which did not explicitly state that votes would be taken, did not fully comply with new Illinois Open Meetings Act requirements.

At that same meeting, County Administrator Peter Austin informed County Board members that the Mental Health Board was planning a special meeting this Tuesday – the same day that the County Board now is scheduled to appoint the new members – to interview two executive director finalists and “deliberate.”

Ellis in a subsequent memo said he would not call the meeting, and pledged that the Mental Health Board would not move on hiring Lewis’ replacement until new members are seated and have time to become familiar with their roles and how the board operates.

The public health committee revoted Wednesday, 7-0, to recommend freshmen Robert Routzahn, Carrie Smith and Heather Murgatroyd, and rejected, 2-5, a bid to keep Ellis on with a one-year unexpired term. Committee members voted, 4-3, to recommend giving the one-year unexpired term to incumbent Connee Meschini, whom supporters say asks tough questions and wants more accountability.

Among the agenda items for Monday evening’s joint meeting of the Mental Health Board and its Search Committee is appointing Vice President Brett Wisnauski to the committee, likely in anticipation of Ellis’ imminent departure. The committee consists of five members – Chairman Ellis, Yensen, two other Mental Health Board members, and former board President Bev Thomas.

Wisnauski’s term is up for reappointment at the end of the year along with the one-year seat.

What’s next

The McHenry County Board will meet Tuesday morning to approve new appointees to the McHenry County Mental Health Board. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. at the county Administration Building, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock.

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