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Reporter's Notebook: Summers' lease hath all too short a date

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I have no idea who McHenry County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill will nominate to fill an open seat on the Mental Health Board, but I can tell you who she won't.

I bluntly asked Hill this morning whether she will bring forth ousted Mental Health Board President Lee Ellis. She was just as blunt when she said no.

"I do not think Lee Ellis could be appointed by this County Board. I need to find a candidate that I could put through this County Board," Hill said.

There were fireworks aplenty Tuesday when the County Board voted, 18-6, against the recommendation of the Public Health and Human Services Committee to appoint former McHenry County College trustee Scott Summers to the open seat. And Hill raised more than a few eyebrows – and some tempers to match – when she invoked her right under County Board rules to bring forth a nominee of her own for the County Board to approve at its next meeting.

Here are some of the quotes, facts and interviews that I could not shoehorn into my 30-inch story on Tuesday's unprecedented moves.

• DUELING NOMINEES? Public Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Donna Kurtz has called a special meeting Friday morning to discuss what the committee should do next.

The committee nominated Summers last month on a narrow 4-3 split. The next move, Kurtz told me Tuesday afternoon, could be reopening interviews and bringing forth a nominee independent of Hill.

Kurtz, a longtime critic of the Mental Health Board's size and how it spends its money, has been on a mission since being appointed committee chairwoman in January to clean house on the nine-member board.

"The objective is to take a situation that has now gotten murky and tainted, and reassessing that whole process, and I think what we're going to end up doing is reopening the process again," Kurtz said.

Can the committee do this? The short answer is yes. But it would not at all be easy.

The committee would have a matter of days to hold a meeting, conduct interviews and vote on a nominee. County Board rules mandate that board members be notified of recommended appointees to boards and commissions no sooner than five days before the meeting at which a vote will be taken.

So if the committee decides to give it a whirl, they would have until Thursday to finish the process prior to the May 21 meeting at which Hill said she would submit her own nominee.

Exceptions to this rule can be granted ... by the chairwoman. So suffice it to say, the deadline is Thursday.

On top of this, the rules also appear to give the chairman some leeway when it comes to a committee choice even making it to the agenda – board rules state that all appointments subject to County Board approval "will be presented to the County Board by the Chairman." Hill, the way I read the rule, could decide not to allow any decision the committee makes from even coming to a vote.
• I (DON'T) GOT THE POWER:
An angry Michael Walkup told Hill after she announced her decision that he would do his best to strip the chairman's seat of the power to directly bring its own nominees for boards and commissions directly to the County Board floor.

Walkup, a public health committee member who backed Summers, is also a member of the Management Services Committee that is putting the finishing touches on the review of County Board rules that is done after every November election.

The threat has weight. Public health committee member John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, is vice-chairman of Management Services, and he, too, voted for Summers and expressed disappointment in Hill's decision. Kurtz also has a Management Services seat, as does Ersel Schuster, who said she was similarly outraged.

That's four votes on a seven-member committee, meaning a majority vote for changing the rules to take the appointment power away from Hill.

Can it be done? Again, the answer is yes, but it may not be easy.

While state law allows the county board chairman to bring forth nominees to mental health boards, that authority can be tempered by county board rules. Assistant State's Attorney Jana Blake Dickson told me Tuesday that the rules could be changed to require any such nominee Hill chooses to  go through committee first.

And as I wrote in my story today, the County Board almost always scales back the scope of rule changes that Management Services brings forth every two years. But the very fact that Hill invoked her authority in this case – which I cannot remember ever happening in the five years I've covered county government – could concern enough board members to make the difference.

• QUOTES FROM TUESDAY'S MEETNG: As I wrote, the 18 board members who opposed Summers' nomination didn't say a word before and immediately after the vote. But Summers supporters made up for it.

"Not one County Board member reached out to me asking me about this process, and 18 of them voted no." – Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry.

"If you [Chairwoman Hill] are willing to take such a political step, I think ... you should give that a second thought." – John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake.

"For us to stoop this low at the county, this just tears my heart out." – Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock.

"This points to an undercurrent of political activity of which I was completely unaware." – Nick Chirikos, D-Algonquin.

• PUBLIC COMMENT: Seven speakers signed up to address the County Board on the Mental Health Board issue, citing ongoing coverage of the issues it is facing and allegations that money that could be spent on services is being spent on administration and overhead.

All seven argued that reform and change are needed. Three of them cited Summers by name and urged approval of his appointment.

• NO CONFIDENCE: Hammerand suggested to Hill that she consider changing the membership of the Public Health and Human Services Committee, alleging that her decision amounted to a "vote of no confidence."

• SCORECARD: For those of you keeping track at home, five of the nine seats on the Mental Health Board have changed hands since January.

The County Board in March approved filling three four-year seats with newcomers Robert Routzahn, Carrie Smith and Heather Murgatroyd. They ousted Ellis, who sought reappointment, denied a four-year term to incumbent Connee Meschini, and filled a third vacancy of a member who did not seek reappointment.

The county instead gave Meschini the one-year unexpired term left by Rev. James Swarthout, who stepped down to take a job with Rosecrance Health Network, which receives Mental Health Board funding. The move was a compromise between her supporters on the public health committee, who felt she asks tough questions, and her opponents, who alleged her words and her deeds – and her votes – did not match.

County Board member Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, now holds the County Board's voting seat on the Mental Health Board. The previous member, Mary Donner, lost her 2012 re-election bid. Yensen, who has earned a reputation as a fiscal hawk, has actively questioned Mental Health Board expenses, especially the bills paid to the board attorney.

This latest vacancy was left by former member Sam Tenuto, who stepped down shortly after Ellis' ouster to take a job with Pioneer Center for Human Services, which accepts Mental Health Board funding.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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