McHenry County Board addresses COVID-19 mailer controversy between Franks, Teresi

McHenry County Board addresses COVID-19 mailer controversy between Franks, Teresi

 
 
Updated 7/24/2020 11:06 AM

A recurring theme emerged among the member comments at McHenry County Board meeting Tuesday, with nearly every member who spoke compelled to take a side in a recent controversy between county board Chairman Jack Franks and county auditor Shannon Teresi.

The feud centers around an informational mailer on COVID-19 sent to county residents recently by Franks, which Teresi said violated the procedures outlined in the county's purchasing ordinance by circumventing the approval of the board's finance and audit committee.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I'm hoping that, as a board, we can rise above these petty arguments and start working together to get important things done," District 3 board member Kelli Wegener said Tuesday. "We are here to help the public, and we need to communicate and cooperate for the betterment of the county."

The mailer contained information on COVID-19 as well as local resources for assistance with food, rent and utilities. Franks said he decided to use funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send the mailer because he wanted to ensure that the information reached every county resident.

"Not everybody has internet access; not everybody gets the newspaper," Franks said. "We have a big digital divide here, and the people who don't have access to that information are the ones who typically need our help the most."

Franks said he got approval from representatives of FEMA and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency for the project before moving forward. After choosing a vendor and beginning the project, Teresi rejected the payment.

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In the most recent finance and audit committee meeting on July 9, Teresi distributed a memo to committee members detailing certain aspects of the COVID-19 mailer initiative she found to be problematic.

Teresi said Franks did not submit the mailer to be reviewed and approved by the county board as is required for any county expense exceeding $30,000.

On Tuesday, board members Jeff Thorsen, Kelli Wegener, Chuck Wheeler, Joseph Gottemoller, Michael Vijuk, John Reinert and Jim Kearns all weighed in on the issue. Wheeler, Thorsen, Reinert, Kearns and Gottemoller agreed with Teresi the mailer improperly circumvented board approval.

"I guess I have to welcome you all to the silly season," Franks said during the portion of the meeting designated for chairman's remarks. He proceeded to call Teresi "incompetent," saying she had no reason to reject the payment and purposefully "misled the board."

The purchasing ordinance mandates that any expenses exceeding $30,000 for one vendor should go through the finance and audit committee, even if the total expense is made up of multiple orders with the same vendor.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In the case of Franks' COVID-19 mailer, the printing and mailing services went through the same vendor.

The expenses associated with the mailer amounted to approximately $10,000 in printing costs and around $22,000 for the mailing for a total of roughly $32,000, Teresi said.

Although this exceeds $30,000, Franks said the project did not need the approval of board members because there is language in the purchasing ordinance stating the cost of mailing should be considered separately from other costs.

This is because the unit price of mailing something is set by the U.S. Postal Service and remains mostly consistent across vendors, he said.

On June 19, the county's purchasing director Adam Letendre wrote to Norman Vinton of the McHenry County state's attorney's office asking whether this interpretation of the purchasing ordinance was accurate and whether the county needed to get bids from other vendors to see if the mailing could be done at a lower rate.

"I would agree that postage would not normally be bid out, no matter the amount, are separated in the bids, and can be ignored for the amount of the purchases," Vinton wrote back in an email. "In other words, the postage amount would not be included in the purchasing requirement considerations."

In a news release sent July 15, Franks said Teresi's accusations about the mailer are the latest in a series of "political attacks" she has launched against him and accused her of using her office to benefit fellow Republicans.

"In every other instance where Republican officers split the postage costs from the printing, she has approved it," Franks said in Tuesday's meeting.

Franks referenced county clerk Joe Tirio's mailers on election information and treasurer Glenda Miller's tax mailers, which, historically, have not been submitted for review by the finance and audit committee.

According to the memo, Teresi had several other reasons for denying the payment. She said Franks' office only got bids on pricing from two vendors after work on the project had already begun and a last-minute bid from a third vendor came back cheaper but was not considered.

As an emergency communication, Franks said his office did not have to seek competitive bids but decided to do so anyway as a way of going "above and beyond." Vijuk agreed with this assessment of FEMA reimbursement requirements in the Tuesday board meeting.

Teresi also noted the requisition for the mailer and the invoice for the payment of postage costs were deleted from the county's financial system.

Finally, she said the mailer seemed political in nature which was problematic given that it was sent out before an election and that FEMA-funded expenditures should not be used to promote a specific governmental officer.

"The first draft that we received had the chairman's picture on it," she said. "When we expressed concern over one page of it promoting (him) as a governmental unit, they did remove the picture but still (had) his name like six times on it."

Franks called allegations of the mailer being political "absurd" and said his office has the right to send out communications just like any other office of county government.

Regardless of any other factors associated with the situation, once she rejected the payment the mailer should have gone through the finance and audit committee before being sent out, Teresi said.

"The auditor's office does a duty to approve or recommend for the county board but the final power reference to payment or non-payment claims against the county rests with the county board," she said, referencing an Illinois Attorney General opinion from September 1974.

Teresi said that it would have only taken a few days to have the committee review Franks' mailer before it was sent out.

Finance and Audit Committee Chairman Michael Skala confirmed the committee would have been able to call a last-minute special meeting as long as it gave the public 48 hours of notice, but said he was never asked to do so by Franks or Teresi.

The mailer did not require review and needed to be sent out quickly, Franks said on the matter. In her memo, Teresi declared the mailer as a non-emergency expense due to the fact Franks' office spent more than a month preparing it.

More important than arguing over what happened in this particular situation is coming together with solutions to ensure this kind of thing cannot happen again in the future, Skala said.

"Anytime you have staff have to go to the state's attorney's office for an opinion on a purchasing ordinance that should be black and white and very clear, then there's a problem with it because if it's left to interpretation, obviously, it's not clear enough," he said.

During the July 9 meeting, Skala called upon board members and all other relevant county officials to spend some time thinking about ways they could improve the county's procedures around expenditures.

"The political battle of this particular mailer is just that, it's a political battle, and everyone is entitled to their opinions about it," he said. "I'm trying to go beyond that and say there were processes that broke down, didn't work efficiently enough and therefore I'm trying to fix those processes."

Skala said his hope is the committee will come back together in its Aug. 6 meeting ready to set politics aside and talk solutions.

"As chair of finance, I'm not here to choose sides," he said. "I'm here to make things better."

In his member statement on Tuesday, Kearns asked board members to work to strengthen and fix "procedural gaps" that led to COVID-19 mailer being sent out without review, saying it is their responsibility to provide strong policies for county government.

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