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Mental Health Board approves legal fee reforms

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The McHenry County Mental Health Board approved dual proposals aimed at controlling its skyrocketing legal fees.

Members voted Tuesday evening, 8-0, to approve a measure forbidding the board attorney from billing for any service that is not approved in writing by both interim Executive Director Todd Schroll and new board President Robert Routzahn. Board members also voted, 8-0, to direct Schroll to draft a request for proposals to bid competitively for legal services.

Routzahn said during the meeting and again Wednesday that he anticipates that board attorney Francis Gosser likely will be replaced.

“I think there’s justified concerns about the services we’re being offered, and I think there’s an appetite for change,” Routzahn said Wednesday.

The $290,000 the Mental Health Board paid last fiscal year in legal expenses was almost six times the $50,000 it budgeted. About $180,000 of that went to Gosser, whose hourly rate was raised late last year to $250.

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 go directly to agencies working with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, as the board was created by voter referendum to do.

The dual permission to approve legal services is a temporary measure through the end of the year, until the Mental Health Board drafts a concrete set of rules as to what services it will pay for. Democratic County Board member Paula Yensen, who holds the body’s voting seat on the Mental Health Board, has questioned the necessity of thousands of dollars billed for things such as reviewing meeting packets and agendas and processing Freedom of Information Act requests.

The board as of July 1 has paid out $108,504 for legal services this fiscal year, according to its most recent expenditure report, which is more than 50 percent more than the $70,000 it budgeted. The board exceeded its legal budget in March, just four months into the fiscal year, which ends Nov. 30.

Gosser’s most recent legal bill, also approved Tuesday, is $6,625. He billed $3,000 for services rendered in June and was owed a previous balance of $3,625. The board paid him $9,875 on July 1 to pay down a $13,500 balance, according to the invoice.

A shake-up of County Board committees after the 2012 redistricting election placed a reform-oriented majority on the committee in charge of recommending Mental Health Board appointees.

Criticism of Mental Health Board spending increased in late 2010 when it broke ground on a $3 million expansion to almost quadruple the size of its Crystal Lake headquarters. It further amplified last year when the board spent $1.8 million in a failed effort to save an ailing mental health agency from closing.

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