HEBRON – Not much of Hebron village government’s core staff remains since Village President John Jacobson took over.
Gone is a public works director and his second-in-command. Gone is the village’s clerk. Gone is a longtime treasurer – and, only months later, her replacement.
Gone – fired – is Paul Acutt, the police officer who arrested Jacobson for driving under the influence in 2011.
Less than a year since Jacobson was elected despite pending drug charges, a Northwest Herald investigation has turned up details about the departures and additions to village staff under his guidance, and how he’s running the day-to-day operations of the village. Jacobson’s handling of a village truck to pay a consultant – without board approval – has raised legal concerns.
The investigation also revealed new details into Jacobson’s dismissal from McHenry County College in February 2013, where it was alleged that the then-custodian was receiving and forwarding photos of naked children and adult pornographic images using the college’s email system. The McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office and the college give differing answers as to whether a police report ever was filed in the matter.
In Hebron, some staffers have resigned, not commenting publicly about their reasons for leaving. Others have been fired. Their replacements, in many cases, bring a fraction of their predecessors’ experience.
“Our village [staff] now consists of people who have no clue, and have no experience in what they’re doing,” Village Trustee Susan Ritzert said.
Ritzert and at least one other trustee are questioning the way the village is being run. They’re frustrated by their leader’s lack of communication, a tactic Ritzert sees as deliberate – consistent with Jacobson’s desire to control every aspect of the small town’s government.
A shifting village staff
Despite attempts over the course of several weeks to arrange an interview, Jacobson never agreed to talk to the Northwest Herald for this story.
But in a voicemail and a short, emailed statement, he denied that any departures from the village staff are a reflection on him.
Ritzert views the changes differently. A retired clerical worker in the medical industry who spent 24 years with Centegra Health System, Ritzert has lived in Hebron since 1976 and served as a trustee for about 11 years in all.
She’s also good friends with Frank Beatty, the 16-year Hebron village president whom Jacobson defeated in the spring 2013 election. With felony crack cocaine charges pending, Jacobson took 61 percent of the vote. He later pleaded guilty and in exchange had his charges reduced to a single misdemeanor – allowing him to keep office.
Ritzert – who said her qualms with Jacobson have nothing to do with her friendship with Beatty – takes issue with how Jacobson is running the village. She said the staff turnover has been in large part a result of Jacobson’s harsh management tactics.
Randy Funk had been with the village for eight-and-a-half years when he retired as public works director in October. Funk took a job with a different municipality.
He declined to comment on the reasons for his decision.
“I’m sure it’ll all come out what happened eventually,” Funk said.
Ritzert said Jacobson has shown a tendency toward forcing employees out by creating an uncomfortable work environment.
“This is his agenda,” she said. “He doesn’t like to answer to anyone. He wants to run everything. And he’ll say or do anything.”
Jacobson hired Ion Stear, a young mechanic, to join the public works staff in October. He hired Daniel Nelson to replace Funk in November.
Nelson, who has operated a Hebron-based flooring business since 1993, came in with no municipal experience outside of a three-year stint plowing roads for Hebron Township, which ended in 1990.
“My comment at the meeting ... was, ‘Dan’s a good person, he’s honest. But he needs someone to help him learn the other aspects of working with the village,’ “ Ritzert said.
Randy Martin, who had worked in the public works department for about five years, was let go in December. Jacobson said in his emailed statement that the layoff was made for financial reasons.
Martin declined comment for this story.
Acutt, a part-time Hebron police officer in 2011 when he pulled over and arrested Jacobson for driving under the influence, was fired in September. His employee discipline sheet, obtained by the Northwest Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request, said he was terminated for “refusal to obey orders” and “insubordination.”
Reached by phone, Acutt said he hadn’t seen the termination sheet, which is dated Sept. 27, 2013. He originally agreed to an interview about his experience in Hebron but later declined comment.
“Due to the pending possible legal recourse on my part, at this time I have no comment on the situation in Hebron,” he said.
Police Chief Scott Annen also declined to comment on the firing.
Like Ritzert, Village Trustee Mark Mogan has grown frustrated with Jacobson’s lack of communication with the board.
While board members have approved every village hire, Ritzert and Mogan said they often lack the information necessary to make informed decisions.
Mogan takes issue with some of Jacobson’s staffing changes, and called the way he has run the village “chaotic.”
“Choices with personnel don’t seem to be very consistent,” Mogan said. “Hiring people that seem to serve his interest, not the village’s. Firing people with no real explanation given to the board.”
Two experienced employees left quickly after Jacobson was elected. Marisa Nor, Hebron’s treasurer for 14 years, retired in June. So did Jean Attermeier, the village’s clerk for 3 years. Both declined to speak about their departures for this story.
Nor’s replacement, Kelly Vorisek, was gone within months. Katherine Andrus was hired as the new treasurer in November.
Andrus, who had been working as an accountant in Alaska, has previous ties to Jacobson; she served as the Hebron-Alden-Greenwood Fire Protection District administrative assistant from 2007 to 2012, while Jacobson was the fire board’s president.
One symbol Ritzert gave of what she considers Jacobson’s backdoor tactics comes in the form of a 1990 Ford F-350.
Ritzert said she and other trustees heard that the truck had been given to Mike Miller, who was hired in the fall to work for four months as a consultant in the public works department, as payment for his time with the village.
But such a measure would require trustee approval, Village Attorney Michael Smoron said.
“One can do that, but you do need the board to sign off,” Smoron said. “That has to come in front of them.”
Village payroll records, secured through a Freedom of Information Act request, show Miller was paid his $2,200 monthly fee in October, November and January – but not December.
In a March 2 voicemail to the Northwest Herald, Jacobson – aware of the newspaper’s questions about the truck – made reference to it.
“I did not give anything to anybody,” he said. “We still owe him for December because he was using part of that as a lieu of that. But it’s [the title] not in his name.”
The next day, Jacobson called a special village board meeting with two agenda items. One of them was for the board to approve the sale of the truck to Miller for $2,500. On Wednesday afternoon, the day the meeting was set to take place, Ritzert said that at least four trustees had planned to no-vote the issue, and the board was planning to ask questions about the truck’s whereabouts.
An hour before the special meeting was to be held, Jacobson called it off, saying that the village had incorrectly listed the meeting’s date on its website.
Reached by phone just minutes after the cancellation, Jacobson was asked where the truck was.
The phone went silent until the question was asked a second time.
“It’s in the village garage,” Jacobson said, finally.
Jacobson declined granting a reporter access to the garage that night, but offered to show the garage and truck the next day.
He also denied that the truck had ever been in Miller’s possession.
On Thursday, Miller said he’d been told the truck would account for one month of his consultant pay. He said he’d been told he’d have to pay an extra $300 toward the total.
But Miller also denied that he had been using the truck already.
“I’m a little upset about it,” said Miller, the husband of Village Clerk Rose Smith-Miller, who joined the staff last summer. “Because I don’t have the truck, and that was the deal.”
The letter officially dismissing Jacobson from his McHenry County College employment raises as many questions as it answers.
Dated Feb. 20, 2013, the letter from Angelina Castillo, MCC’s assistant vice-president of human resources, references Jacobson’s failure to abide by the college’s information technology policies as one factor that led to his firing. The document, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Northwest Herald doesn’t hint at the other factors.
The letter says Jacobson was “viewing and/or forwarding inappropriate and offensive content via the College’s e-mail system, which included nude and pornographic images of women and children.”
MCC spokeswoman Christina Haggerty declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation of Jacobson, but said the state’s attorney’s office was contacted at the appropriate time.
Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs said the images didn’t constitute child pornography – a threshold that stretches beyond simple child nudity. Therefore, no charges were warranted, he said.
“It’s a 5-year-old peeing on a tire,” he said of one of the forwarded images. “It’s not a child engaged in a sex act, and it’s not lascivious.”
Combs referenced a specific police report when discussing the case – a report MCC officials said doesn’t exist.
Laura Brown, the college’s FOIA officer, called the college’s interaction with the state’s attorney’s office about Jacobson a “consultation,” and said the college never forwarded any documents to the agency. She said a police report was never filed.
“We’re not aware of that,” Brown said. “What we were dealing with was a personnel investigation, not a police report.”
The letter from Castillo references a separate letter from President Vicky Smith to Jacobson, which lays out in full the reasoning for Jacobson’s firing. That document was denied under the Northwest Herald’s FOIA request. The Northwest Herald is in the process of appealing the decision to the Illinois Attorney General.
Asked what she wants to see happen next, Ritzert gave pause.
“I’m hoping what should have happened after his arrest last year, to be very honest,” she said.
Ritzert wants to see Jacobson out of office.
That might be difficult.
To lose his position, Jacobson would have to be convicted of a felony or commit an act that constitutes “official misconduct,” said Smoron, the village’s attorney.
Jacobson awaits a March 27 trial date in Walworth, Wis., on a DUI charge, for which he’s pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face an increased sentence for violating the one-year probation he received in the crack cocaine case. Those charges couldn’t be retroactively raised to a felony.
Jacobson was found not guilty of his 2011 DUI.
Ritzert served on the rescue squad under Jacobson long before her relationship with him on the village board took hold. Those experiences, in some ways, forecasted the chaotic last 10 months, she said. Her worries started early.
“I was concerned as soon as he came in and took a petition out,” she said.