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Mental Health attorney steps down, agency turns down funding

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 5:39 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 11:57 p.m. CDT

CRYSTAL LAKE – Two of the three items on a contentious McHenry County Mental Health Board agenda – firing the longtime board attorney and forwarding money to an agency flagged in an audit – were taken care of during public comment.

Attorney Frank Gosser resigned before the board could end their relationship, and The Advantage Group turned down a $49,000 payment the board was set Tuesday morning to authorize. That left one agenda item for the board to tackle – hiring interim legal representation until bidding is done for a permanent replacement.

Gosser submitted his resignation after making a statement defending his record of representing the board. Board President Robert Routzahn said last week that Gosser “had lost the confidence and trust of the board” – five of the board’s seven current members have been seated within the past year. Gosser has not returned calls for comment for recent stories regarding the Mental Health Board.

“Obviously, Frank knew what we intended to do, and he decided to resign on his own terms and make a final statement, which was fine,” Routzahn said.

Critics have alleged the Mental Health Board has become a staff-heavy bureaucracy that spends too much on overhead and administration that should be going directly to agencies working with the mentally ill and disabled. While criticism has gone on for many years, board resignations and new reform-oriented membership on the County Board committee in charge of filling those seats have resulted in the recent shakeup.

Routzahn has expressed concerns over Gosser’s $250-an-hour rate and the multiple items for which he had billed. Routzahn assumed the board’s presidency in June, just three months after he and two other new candidates were appointed by the McHenry County Board.

The board originally intended to keep Gosser on until it could find a more economical replacement, but Routzahn said an unsolicited memo from Gosser criticizing its Aug. 27 vote to move ahead with granting a one-time payment to The Advantage Group to keep it afloat prompted the majority to seek his immediate termination as counsel. Ironically, Gosser was preceded during public comment by Advantage Group Executive Director Pat Owens’ withdrawal of its request for $49,000.

Owens said the group, which provides alcohol- and substance-abuse counseling to young adults, will “make do” until it can get its funding restored. The Mental Health Board last year cut its funding after an audit revealed numerous fiscal irregularities, from billing for unapproved services and noncompliance with Medicaid regulations to using Mental Health Board funds in an inconsistent manner from its funding agreement.

“I really felt at this time that I wanted to support the board, what they’re doing and their commitment to making thoughtful decisions,” Owens said. “There’s a lot on the plate in the next couple of months, and I felt it was the right thing to do right now.”

The Mental Health Board Ethics and Compliance Committee directed staff members earlier this month to reach out to The Advantage Group to work out differences – and resolve the issues raised in the audit – so that funding could be restored. The initial audit, released a year ago, recommended getting back the $1.08 million paid to the agency between 2009 and 2011.

Work on addressing those issues stopped when The Advantage Group filed a federal lawsuit, which was dismissed earlier this year, alleging the board was trying to put it out of existence in favor of agencies it prefers.

Owens said she would like to work toward a resolution so the agency could get its funding restored.

The treatment center is also the focus of an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

The office, which does not comment on ongoing investigations, subpoenaed the Mental Health Board’s records pertaining to The Advantage Group in October, according to records.

The County Board’s seat on the nine-member Mental Health Board was given after the 2012 election to Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, who began pushing for more oversight on legal spending after the Mental Health Board blew its legal budget by almost 600 percent. It budgeted $50,000 in 2012, but spent $290,000.

The board in July approved a temporary measure that forbids an attorney from billing for any service not requested in writing by both the board president and interim Executive Director Todd Schroll.

Mental Health Board members Tuesday approved hiring an attorney from the Ancel Glink law firm on a $1,000-a-month retainer until a permanent successor is found. The board issued its bid proposals at its August meeting, with responses due by the end of this month. New counsel could be hired at the October board meeting.

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