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McHenry County Board keeps Nunda grant audit under wraps

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014 5:04 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 9:43 a.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – A private county audit that revealed problems with how the Nunda Township Road District spent $15,000 for its senior bus program will stay sealed.

After more than an hour of sometimes heated debate, the McHenry County Board voted Tuesday, 8-14, against making the audit public. The 2013 audit of the Senior Services Grant Commission funds the township received in 2012 showed “a weakness in the documentation of how the funds were expended,” according to the board packet.

And in discussing an audit the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office opined is exempt from the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the County Board came close to illegally discussing the audit’s release in closed session, against the office’s explicit advice.

Although a small amount of money by county government standards, the $15,000 identified in the audit does have a political dimension.

The Nunda Township Highway Commissioner in 2012 was Don Kopsell, who is a Republican candidate for McHenry County Board after winning the March primary for its District 3.

Supporters of releasing the audit called it a plain and simple transparency issue. Finance and Audit Committee member Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, said he has fought for months to get the audit to a vote.

“How we choose to vote today will send a loud and clear message to our community,” Provenzano said.

Member John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, argued that because the county has no authority over a township government, release of the audit is its sole remedy short of cutting off its funding, which already has happened.

“We can fire people, dismiss them or cut their budgets if it’s one of us. With someone from the outside, we don’t have those remedies, and then we have to look at who was injured, and in this case it’s the people of Nunda [Township],” Hammerand said.

But the majority who wanted to keep the audit under wraps fell into two groups. Some wanted to heed the advice of Auditor Pam Palmer, who urged them to keep it confidential to protect the integrity of the process and to prevent discouraging whistleblowers who want to provide anonymous tips.

“I have been a champion for transparency, almost to the point that I’m tired of hearing the word,” said Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock. “But when our auditor, an elected official, has made the decision to withhold the audit, I have to stay with what she’s been suggesting.”

Others expressed discomfort with selectively releasing internal audits and said there should be a policy for releasing all of them. Nunda Township was one of four 2012 grant recipients audited by Palmer at the request of now-retired Deputy County Administrator John Labaj.

Palmer would not say whether Nunda Township was chosen at random or whether Labaj asked her to audit it.

“I want to make very clear that we shouldn’t be picking and choosing which ones we release based on the tea leaves we’ve been reading,” said member Mike Skala, R-Huntley.

The Freedom of Information Act does not forbid governments from releasing documents the law exempts from disclosure – it merely gives public bodies the option of withholding them if they so choose.

The Senior Services Grant Commission exists to distribute about $1.7 million a year from a special property tax levy approved in a 2002 referendum to agencies who provide services to senior citizens.

It awarded $15,000 to the township’s senior bus system for 2012, and $14,595 for 2013, according to county records. But Nunda Township only received $7,923 of its 2013 money, paid about a month before the April township election. The county decided at the time to stop payments until further notice.

Kopsell, who held the office of highway commissioner for 16 years, lost his re-election bid to current Commissioner Mike Lesperance. Kopsell could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Palmer has not done any audits of senior services funds since, citing her workload of overseeing county government’s 28 departments, although she supports the idea that grant recipients should be audited on a random basis.

Several County Board members said they would pursue creating a policy to do that, and to make sure such audits are automatically released to the public. Ken Koehler, who voted to release the Nunda audit, said his future votes to allocate grant funding will depend on it.

“I for one will never approve a [Senior Services] grant again until the audits are open,” said Koehler, R-Crystal Lake.

Board member Mary McClellan, R-Holiday Hills, made the motion at the start of the debate to take it into closed session, despite an opinion from Assistant State’s Attorney Jana Blake Dickson that the Open Meetings Act does not cover such a discussion.

McClellan withdrew her motion in the face of opposition, especially after three members – Joe Gottemoller, Donna Kurtz and Hammerand – said they would leave rather than participate in an illegal meeting.

How they voted

The McHenry County Board voted Tuesday, 8-14, against making public an audit of how the Nunda Township Road District spent Senior Services Grant Commission money in 2012. Voting to release the audit were Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, Joe Gottemoller, R-Crystal Lake, John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, James Heisler, R-Crystal Lake, Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake, and Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake.

Voting against releasing it were Carolyn Schofield, R-Crystal Lake, Ersel Schuster, R-Woodstock, Mike Skala, R-Huntley, Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, Michele Aavang, R-Woodstock, Yvonne Barnes, R-Cary, Nick Chirikos, D-Algonquin, Sue Draffkorn, R-Wonder Lake, John Jung, R-Woodstock, Mary McCann, R-Woodstock, Mary McClellan, R-Holiday Hills, Anna May Miller, R-Cary, Robert Nowak, R-Lake in the Hills, and board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock.

Board member Robert Martens Sr., R-Spring Grove, attended the meeting but had left by the time of the vote. Member Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, was absent.

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