Newcomers in line for Mental Health Board reins

Mental Health Board vote to come Tuesday

Reform-minded appointees to the McHenry County Mental Health Board will take its reins under a slate proposed for approval next week.

Under a slate released Tuesday, newcomers Robert Routzahn and Carrie Smith are in line to be elected president and vice president of the nine-member board. The board has come under increasing scrutiny over its spending and size, which contributed in large part to the former president’s ouster.

Incumbent Connee Meschini, who has questioned the board’s spending in the past, will remain as secretary, and incumbent Don Larson, the board’s longest-serving member, will be elected treasurer. The McHenry County Board appoints to the Mental Health Board, which elects officers yearly.

Routzahn, of Crystal Lake, said Wednesday afternoon in between meetings with client agencies that he looks forward to the challenge. He met Wednesday morning with the Special Education District of McHenry County and was en route to a meeting with Transitional Living Services, which helps homeless veterans. 

“I’m excited about the opportunity, and to be perfectly honest, honored and humbled by the challenge,” Routzahn said. “There’s much to be done, and I’m very receptive to questions of good government, transparency and appropriate oversight.”

Five of the nine seats have changed hands since September. Two members lost re-election, two resigned to take jobs with agencies receiving Mental Health Board funding, and one did not seek reappointment. The Mental Health Board meets next Tuesday evening to elect officers.

Critics have accused the Mental Health Board in recent years of becoming a bureaucracy that spends too much money on administration and overhead that should be going directly to agencies treating the mentally ill and disabled, as it was created by voter referendum to do.

Those criticisms were amplified last year as the Mental Health Board spent $1.8 million in a failed effort to save an ailing mental health agency from closing, and blew its legal budget by more than 500 percent, in part to successfully defend against a federal lawsuit filed by one of the agencies it funds. Former Executive Director Sandy Lewis quit last year to take another job, shortly after receiving her doctorate, for which taxpayers paid at least $30,000, according to records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The Mental Health Board had maintained in response to criticism that it spent a flat 6 percent on administrative costs. But that figure from a 2011 report only factored in administrative salaries and general operating costs, and not items such as paying off $3.5 million in bonds to almost quadruple the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters. Its 2012 annual report released late last month puts administrative costs at 17 percent, or just under $2.5 million of the $14.9 million it spent last fiscal year.

A reform effort started in earnest in January, when the McHenry County Board appointed longtime Mental Health Board critic Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, as chairman of the County Board committee in charge of appointing Mental Health Board members. It nominated newcomers Routzahn, Smith and Heather Murgatroyd from a pool of 12 applicants to fill three expired terms, and rejected the reappointment bid of President Lee Ellis.

Current Vice President Brett Wisnauski has been filling in as board president since Ellis’ ouster. 

Routzahn said his immediate priorities will be finding a replacement for Lewis and moving forward with commissioning an outside audit of the Mental Health Board. Employee Todd Schroll has served as interim executive director since Oct. 29, and the board started its search over in April after one of the two finalists for the job took another offer. Schroll has applied for the job, but board members have not commented on speculation that he was one of the two finalists.

Another priority Routzahn highlighted is moving forward on competitively bidding for legal services. Routzahn and County Board liaison Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, have questioned the legal bills submitted by current board attorney Francis Gosser, who since last year has been paid $250 an hour for legal services.

What it means

The McHenry County Mental Health Board has nominated newcomers Robert Routzahn and Connie Smith to serve as president and vice president of the board. It nominated incumbents Don Larson and Connee Meschini to the posts of treasurer and secretary.

What’s next

The board will vote to elect its officers at its next meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the board’s headquarters, 620 Dakota St., Crystal Lake.

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