Yensen to Mental Health Board: Trim attorney's fees

County Board member questions $83,000 spent

The McHenry County Board's liaison to the Mental Health Board wants some changes put in place regarding how, and for what, it reimburses its attorney.

Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, confronted fellow Mental Health Board members at two Tuesday meetings, questioning $83,556 in payments to board attorney Frank Gosser.

Her comments came the same day that the Mental Health Board, with Gosser's help, prevailed in a federal lawsuit filed against it last year by one of the agencies it funds. But Yensen asked the board why Gosser needed to be involved in matters such as attending meetings, reviewing board packets, and processing Freedom of Information Act requests.

"These are non-litigation expenses for which we reimbursed Mr. Gosser. What I was trying to point out is that these expenditures were such that maybe we should re-evaluate the role that Mr. Gosser plays on the Mental Health Board as attorney," Yensen said.

She presented her list Tuesday morning to the board's Finance Committee, and Tuesday evening to the full Mental Health Board, which decided to forward the matter to its Executive Committee. Yensen holds the County Board's voting seat on the Mental Health Board.

Attempts to reach Gosser for comment were not successful.

Yensen highlighted about 100 payments to Gosser from 46 pages of invoices between late December 2010 and February 2013. The Mental Health Board late last year raised Gosser's hourly rate to $250.

Payments to Gosser for preparing for and attending meetings typically ran between $500 and $800 during the time period Yensen highlighted.

Other charges included $1,100 for attending two committee meetings and a special board meeting and a teleconference regarding "various closed-session issues." An additional $1,125 payment was made for reviewing the board packet, attending the meeting, reviewing closed-session minutes, and working on "miscellaneous files."

Yensen recommended in a one-page memo that the Mental Health Board trim legal costs by developing a policy for legal services, bidding competitively for them, and increasing oversight of attorney invoices once submitted.

Legal services are considered a specialty service under state law and are therefore exempt from competitive bidding requirements. But Yensen said the Mental Health Board should consider bidding.

"As you know, the MHB is paying $250 per hour with little information as to whether this is competitive," Yensen wrote in a one-page memo accompanying the invoices.

The Mental Health Board has faced growing scrutiny from critics, including some agencies receiving its funding, that it has become a bureaucracy that keeps too much tax money that instead should be directly distributed to agencies providing services.

Scrutiny has increased over the past year as the Mental Health Board spent almost $1.8 million to unsuccessfully save one of the county's largest providers, Family Service and Community Mental Health Center, from closing. It also received criticism after the former executive director left to take a new job, just after taxpayers paid at least $30,000 toward her doctorate degree.

The Mental Health Board last fiscal year had budgeted $50,000 for legal fees, but ended up spending almost six times that, or $290,000, according to a 2012 fund utilization report. Mental Health Board officials have attributed much of the cost to a federal lawsuit filed against it last year by The Advantage Group Foundation, one of the agencies that it funds.

A federal judge threw out the lawsuit Tuesday. The Crystal Lake-based drug and alcohol counseling agency alleged that the Mental Health Board's efforts to recoup $1.1 million it says the group improperly billed was an effort to drive The Advantage Group out of business.

Mental Health Board President Brett Wisnauski said in a Wednesday statement that the board welcomed the verdict and knew it would prevail. He also said that the board's concern was with proper billing and funding, and not The Advantage Group's services to clients.

"No doubt this process has not been easy for either the Mental Health Board or The Advantage Group. The Mental Health Board will continue to work with The Advantage Group to reconcile its audit findings. We anticipate and look forward to an open and constructive dialogue," Wisnauski said.

The Mental Health Board budgeted $70,000 for legal expenses this fiscal year, but already has exceeded it as of March 31 by spending $72,638, Yensen said.

"At this point in time, the Mental Health Board is already over budget for legal services. I believe they need to start prioritizing the use of the attorney's time and talent," Yensen said.

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