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updated: 8/2/2013 9:17 AM

Lake chairman: $122,000 severance deal smells bad

Lawlor concerned about deal to get rid of Lake County housing executive

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  • Aaron Lawlor

    Aaron Lawlor

  • Jeneen Smith Underwood

    Jeneen Smith Underwood

  • R. Delacy Peters

    R. Delacy Peters


Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor is demanding detailed information about a six-figure separation agreement for the former head of the county's local housing authority that was approved by officials appointed by his office.

Lawlor said he's "extremely concerned" about the $122,000 deal provided to Jeneen Smith-Underwood in exchange for her resignation after just four months as the Lake County Housing Authority's executive director/chief executive officer. His concern was prompted by this week's Daily Herald report on Smith-Underwood's voluntary separation agreement.

"The bottom line is, the whole thing doesn't smell right," Lawlor said Thursday.

Lawlor has sent a letter to housing authority board Chairman R. Delacy Peters that seeks a variety of documents regarding Smith-Underwood's settlement and work performance. He wrote that he wants to assess the board's actions leading up and related to the rehiring of David Northern as executive director/CEO and Smith-Underwood's departure.

Peters responded that he intends to meet with Lawlor in the next 10 days. He said Smith-Underwood resigned for "personal and confidential" reasons, and the $122,000 payment came from fees the housing authority earned on private real-estate transactions.

"No federal, state or local tax dollars were involved in her settlement," Peters said.

At least 300 appointed board positions for public entities, such as the housing authority, Metra and fire protection districts, are made by the Lake County Board chairman. Lawlor, chairman since December, said he's been responsible for the selection of two of the seven housing authority board commissioners.

"I appoint these (housing authority) board members," he said. "I think it's important for me to have an understanding of what happened."

Formed in 1946, the Lake County Housing Authority supports more than 11,000 residents and mostly receives its public funding from the federal government. It is the fourth-largest housing authority in Illinois.

Commissioners elevated Smith-Underwood from deputy director to the top post when Northern left in March for a high-ranking job with the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Northern, whose first stint as executive director/CEO began in 2008, was rehired to lead the Lake County agency July 10, the same day board commissioners voted 7-0 in favor of Smith-Underwood's voluntary separation agreement.

In addition to getting the $122,000, the agreement allowed Smith-Underwood to receive a generic letter of recommendation from Peters dated July 8. Peters praised her professionalism and integrity.

Northern received a four-year contract with a $146,466 annual base salary to return as the housing authority's executive director/CEO. Lawlor is asking the agency to give him any emails or other documents related to Northern's re-employment.

Smith-Underwood had been the housing authority's deputy director for about five years before she replaced Northern. Smith-Underwood's deal shouldn't be construed as an admission of any acts of wrongdoing by her or others, according to documents obtained through a Daily Herald Freedom of Information Act request.

In 2005, Smith-Underwood was among 10 recipients of the YWCA of Lake County's Women of Achievement Awards. Smith-Underwood was lauded for her affordable housing work as neighborhood services coordinator for the village of Round Lake Beach.

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