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Another spot opens on Mental Health Board

Resignation comes 3 days after president’s ouster

Published: Saturday, March 9, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Another member of the McHenry County Mental Health Board is stepping down, three days after the County Board voted to oust its president.

Board Treasurer Sam Tenuto, a member since 2008, resigned effective Friday to take a management position with Pioneer Center for Human Services, the county’s largest social service agency. Staying on the board would constitute a conflict of interest because McHenry-based Pioneer Center receives Mental Health Board funding.

Tenuto said his decision is about a better opportunity and has nothing to do with growing criticism of the Mental Health Board’s budget and spending or Tuesday’s ouster of former President Lee Ellis.

Tenuto has worked for the past 20 years with Clearbrook, a service provider for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Tenuto’s resignation follows that of the Rev. Jim Swarthout, a former board member who stepped down five months ago to take a job with Rosecrance Health Network, which also receives board funding.

“I’m excited to work on expanding and developing the services on the developmental and intellectual disabilities side of Pioneer and partner with them,” Tenuto said.

The resignation could give Ellis another shot, albeit a long one, at getting reappointed to the nine-member Mental Health Board. It also gives critics on the County Board an unexpected opportunity to pursue more turnover.

Critics, which include Pioneer Center officials, have accused the Mental Health Board of spending money on administration and overhead that instead should be disbursed to agencies working with the mentally ill. 

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 employs more than 30 people – down from almost 50 a year ago – and is paying off $3 million in 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.

It was against this backdrop that Ellis applied for reappointment to another four-year term. He was one of 16 applicants for three four-year terms and Swarthout’s unexpired one-year term.

The County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee interviewed Ellis and 11 other candidates, but voted Feb. 15, 6-0, to recommend newcomers Robert Routzahn, Carrie Smith and Heather Murgatroyd instead. The committee since January has been headed by Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, another longtime Mental Health Board critic.

The County Board was supposed to approve the recommendations Feb. 19, but Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, sent almost all appointments back to their committees for revotes out of concern that their agendas did not fully comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

The public health committee revoted Feb. 27 on the three-year appointments, 7-0. An attempt to give the one-year unexpired term to Ellis failed, 2-5, and the committee, on a split vote, narrowly recommended incumbent Connee Meschini over former County Board member Mary Donner.

Only two of the County Board’s 24 members spoke out in favor of Ellis in Tuesday’s vote to approve the new appointments.

Ellis could not be reached for comment Friday as to whether he will reapply. 

He and supporters fought behind the scenes to unsuccessfully prevent his ouster by County Board members. He has filed a request for review with the Attorney General Public Access Counselor to determine whether the Feb. 15 vote violated the Open Meetings Act, the Northwest Herald learned Friday.

Mental Health Board management also has had a number of recent high-profile resignations. The board announce in August the resignation of former Executive Director Sandy Lewis, and the retirements of former Deputy Director Bob Lesser and Clinical Director Liz Doyle.

The Mental Health Board hopes to hire a permanent replacement in mid-May, after giving the three new members time to learn their new roles.

The County Board plans to advertise the newly vacant seat on Monday, giving people until April 11 to apply, County Administrator Peter Austin said.

Five of the Mental Health Board’s nine seats have turned over since October, which includes the County Board’s voting seat, held by Donner until she lost her 2012 re-election bid.

At a glance

McHenry County Mental Health Board Treasurer Sam Tenuto has stepped down to accept a job as director of intellectual and developmental disability services for Pioneer Center for Human Services, which receives funding from the board.

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