Two new trustees of the Lake in the Hills Sanitary District voted to flush the old trustees’ plan to expand its boundaries along a strip of road and buy land over the county line in an attempt to stymie any effort to consolidate it.
But the matter could end up in court. The incumbent trustee, a former trustee who has not relinquished his seat and the attorney they retained are arguing that the new trustees were never legally appointed by the McHenry County Board, in part because the boundary expansion into Kane County took away its authority to do so.
In two separate 2-0 votes at a special Thursday afternoon meeting, new trustees Eric Hansen and Kyle Kane rescinded the district’s April vote to annex right of way down the length of Square Barn Road into Kane County, and backed away from a plan to buy 13.88 acres of land – at an estimated cost of more than $950,000 – about a mile and a half away from the southern boundary of its service area.
The third trustee, Terry Easler, chose not to participate in the meeting and sat in the audience, as did former Trustee Shelby Key, whose term expired April 30 and was not renewed. But their attorney, Derke Price, alleged during public comment after the votes that the whole initiative was moot and that the meeting was illegal.
“I’m not going to follow your direction,” Price said.
Price had petitioned the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office to rule the County Board’s appointments of Hansen and Kane illegal. But the state’s attorney’s office instead has petitioned the court on behalf of County Board Chairman Jack Franks to uphold them, as well as their votes to nullify both the annexation and the effort to buy the land. It also asks for an injunction preventing the closing on the land.
Franks, D-Marengo, accused Key and Easler of “violating the public trust.”
“The only reason they did this annexation was to stop any chance of getting consolidation done, and now they’re willing to spend about a million dollars of taxpayer money to protect their fiefdom,” Franks said.
The motion filed by Franks and the state’s attorney’s office is set for a Monday hearing before Judge Thomas Meyer.
The sanitary district, one of a handful of McHenry County taxing bodies that could be eliminated under a new state law, has been singled out by Franks since he took office in December as a prime candidate for dissolution in a state with about 7,000 units of local government and the highest average property tax burden in the nation.
Under a new consolidation law that Franks wrote as a state lawmaker, the McHenry and Lake county boards can eliminate governments that are entirely within their respective counties, and to which the boards appoint a majority of the trustees.
But the land purchase, if successful, would make the sanitary district a multicounty entity, which would not only exempt it from the consolidation law in question, but also take away the County Board’s power to appoint its trustees, which for multicounty sanitary districts falls to the state lawmakers whose districts include its boundaries.
Hansen, like Franks, said the annexation and attempted land acquisition had nothing to do with expanding service.
“The previous board wanted to purchase land and annex property for the sole purpose of circumventing Illinois law. That’s the only reason,” Hansen said after the meeting.
Although Price in a June 15 letter to state lawmakers maintained that the district had planned for more than three years to expand into Kane County, a review of the district board’s meeting minutes since 2014 reveals that it was not until this spring – after Franks’ election and after he pledged during his campaign to pursue local government consolidation – that trustees began discussing the matter.
Trustees hired Price as legal counsel for the purchase on March 9, and discussed the land acquisition in closed-session meetings March 27 and April 27 – trustees approved the annexation of right of way at the April meeting.
What’s more, it was only Easler and Key doing the discussing.
Former sanitary district Trustee David McPhee stepped down after the Lake in the Hills Village Board appointed him in January to fill a vacant seat. McPhee, who served almost nine years on the district board, said Friday that trustees never once discussed expanding into Kane County during his time.
Franks, who has the responsibility of advancing candidates for boards and commissions for County Board approval, refused to reappoint Key after he sent a letter with April’s sewer bills – written on village stationery – pledging to fight consolidation and urging customers to call their County Board members.
Price has maintained that the letter was privately funded. Although Illinois state law forbids the use of taxpayer resources for political purposes, it is unclear whether the letter would fall under the statute’s definition of prohibited activities.
Price argues that not only does the County Board no longer have the authority to appoint Hansen and Kyle, but also that the County Board’s vote violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act because the word “recommendation” instead of “resolution” was used on the agenda for the June 20 meeting.
The County Board uses the word “recommendation” because appointments are recommended by the chairman and then acted upon by the County Board. The same language was used by the County Board in its 2014 recommendation to appoint Key and its 2016 recommendation to appoint Easler, according to county records. Sanitary district trustees are appointed to three-year terms.
A proposed consolidation of the district is hardly a done deal.
Under the law, the County Board must cite a legitimate reason that concludes the body proposed for elimination provides either unnecessary or duplicative services, followed by an audit and findings of fact before passing an ordinance abolishing it. What’s more, it would require a buy-in from the Lake in the Hills Village Board, which would pick up the district’s duties.
If residents of the sanitary district object, they can petition the county clerk to force the proposed elimination to a voter referendum.
Consolidating the sanitary district could save $400,000 a year, according to a report from village staff. About $675,000 of the district’s $6 million budget comes from its property tax levy, while the rest comes from user fees.