Board members: McHenry chairman's hiring, lease decisions lacked transparency

Several McHenry County Board members are criticizing how the board chairman and county staff have handled issues they believe should have been made more transparent.

In what Chairman Jack Franks called a "political ploy," a faction of the board called for special meetings Thursday and the following Tuesday to discuss two staff hirings, as well as a request for qualifications for the potential lease of the Valley Hi Nursing Home. On both issues, board members say decisions were made without following proper protocol or communicating with the public and the county board.

Franks, however, said county officials acted within their rights and urged the board to focus on more critical issues.

"There's no mystery, there's no intrigue, there's no collusion, there's no scandal," Franks said. "It's just our staff doing their jobs - nothing more and nothing less."

An item on Thursday's special meeting agenda called for eliminating two staff positions - a temporary project manager and a utility coordinator - that were vacated in August 2016. Both have since been filled by staffers working under Franks as an executive assistant and a communications specialist.

County Administrator Peter Austin said the positions were reclassified to assist the new countywide elected board chairman. The intent, he said, was to include those staff members under the appropriate department and titles in the 2018 budget. Both positions have salaries of just over $50,000.

Board member Yvonne Barnes of Cary said the hirings didn't follow county protocol - an issue many board members have been trying to address for months. From the beginning, she said, a proposal to create the new positions should have been brought before the appropriate committees and then the full board.

"There's no reason not to follow the proper procedures," Barnes said. "I have never understood the resistance for doing things the right way. ... This could've been fixed very, very simply."

At the end of a nearly two-hour discussion, the board voted to send an amended proposal back to the committee level, where members would discuss creating the new positions rather than terminating the existing ones. The resolution is expected to be back on the board agenda in October.

Additionally, board members took issue with staff recently sending out a request for qualifications for leasing the county-run Valley Hi.

The county board previously indicated its desire to reevaluate the future of the Woodstock facility, which has a multimillion-dollar surplus, Austin said. Following typical procedure, staff sent out the request so the county could begin exploring its options, he said.

Board member Jeff Thorsen of Crystal Lake, however, said the subject matter is of great public interest and should've been more thoroughly discussed.

"Valley Hi is a matter of policy as far as this board is concern. This board is definitely in the position that it should be driving the cart here," he said. "We really jumped the gun."

Tom Wilbeck of Barrington Hills, who was first elected to the board last November, said the source of the problems between the staff and the board has been a lack of open dialogue.

"Just the pure essence of communicating would've solved a lot of these issues," he said. "Let's be open, let's be transparent and let's work together."

The board is expected to discuss Tuesday how to handle Valley Hi-related discussions moving forward.

  McHenry County Board member Chuck Wheeler of McHenry, far left, addressed Administrator Peter Austin during a special meeting Thursday regarding two staff hirings that some board members believed should have been more transparent. Lauren Rohr/
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