Committee moves to fill final mental health board vacancy

WOODSTOCK – A McHenry County Board committee known for contention with nominating people to the Mental Health Board avoided it in filling the last remaining vacancy by essentially advancing the first runner-up, albeit on the usual 4-3 split.

The Public Health and Human Services Committee voted Wednesday to recommend Huntley business attorney Sam Melei from among a pool of five applicants to fill the vacancy on the nine-member board. Committee members were split along usual lines for their first choices, setting up yet another drawn-out fight. But in a surprise move, Anna May Miller, R-Cary, submitted a motion to nominate Melei, who was the second choice of five members and the first choice of a sixth.

Miller was joined in supporting Melei by Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, and Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry. Melei was the top choice for Salgado, while the other three had favored Carlos Acosta, a DCFS child protection investigator and former director of the now-defunct McHenry County Latino Coalition.

If the County Board votes to approve Melei, the Mental Health Board for the first time in eight months will have all nine of its seats filled. The board over a year of explosive change has undergone almost a complete turnover of its membership and its administrative staff – it has gone through a string of temporary executive directors since November 2012 as a permanent one is sought.

“I felt I could go in there and be a good steward of taxpayer money and make sure taxpayers are getting quality services for their money,” Melei said after the vote Wednesday afternoon.

The Mental Health Board is tasked with helping the county’s mentally ill and developmentally disabled, mainly through a property tax levy it disburses to qualifying social service agencies. But new board members are grappling with shrinking revenues that have forced cuts long sought by critics who have alleged that past boards allowed the agency to become a top-heavy bureaucracy that spent too much on administration, overhead and a large headquarters it did not need.

What to do with the $4 million, 22,000-square-foot expansion the previous board built with federal economic stimulus bonds still being paid off was a question asked of all five candidates. Never filled to capacity, it now sits at least 60 percent empty, Interim Executive Director Lyn Orphal estimated.

Several candidates said they would explore ways the space could be occupied by other agencies, and optimally generate some revenue. State law forbids leasing it out to private entities.

Candidate Phil Bartmann, owner of a radio business and member of the Fox Waterway Agency, called the building “an albatross around the [board’s] neck” and a prime example of what he alleged was past boards exceeding the mission that voters had in mind 40 years ago when they created the Mental Health Board.

Melei said he too would explore alternate uses for the expansion, and did not rule out selling the expansion altogether, leaving the board with its original 8,000-square-foot headquarters.

“We don’t want to have things that we don’t need, and there are limited resources,” Melei said. “Taxpayer dollars are scarce, and they need to be spent wisely.”

A shake-up after the 2012 election resulted in a reform-minded bloc on the public health committee getting a majority with which to change membership on the Mental Health Board. But the committee has split into two camps.

Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, and Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, favor candidates who seem the most receptive to radical change and scaling back the board’s size and scope, McCann and Miller tend to favor more establishment candidates, and Yensen and Salgado are the swing votes. Yensen holds the County Board’s voting seat on the Mental Health Board.

This split has resulted in several impasses. County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill stepped in to nominate a candidate on her own last year after the board’s pick was soundly rejected by the full board. Likewise, this last remaining vacancy was supposed to be filled last November, but the committee could not agree on who to fill it with.

Kurtz’s and Walkup’s first choice Wednesday for filling the vacancy was Lakewood real estate broker Paul Serwatka, and Hammerand favored attorney and former county Zoning Board of Appeals member Robin Perry. Committee members had high praise for Bartmann, but several expressed concerns that he already had too much on his plate.

“We had five people lined up for one spot. It was really nice to see that,” Walkup said.

Melei said he hopes his title of vice chairman of the Democratic Party of McHenry County does not cause problems when the County Board votes to approve him – 22 of its 24 members are Republicans. Melei’s appointment is expected to be on the agenda next Tuesday evening.

“This is a nonpartisan position. I would take it very seriously with the public trust,” Melei said.

Melei would not be the first Democrat appointed to the Mental Health Board. Former board president Robert Routzahn, appointed last year before he stepped down for personal reasons, was a Nunda Township Democratic precinct committeeman.

How they voted

The McHenry County Board Public Health and Human Services Committee voted Wednesday, 4-3, to recommend appointing attorney Sam Melei to a vacancy on the McHenry County Mental Health Board. He was one of five applicants.

Voting yes were Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, Anna May Miller, R-Cary, and Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry. Members Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, and committee Chairwoman Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, voted no.

Melei’s appointment likely will go before the full County Board for approval next Tuesday evening.

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