One last political squabble for Lauzen throws Kane County newsletter into limbo
Kane County government's main tool for communicating with local taxpayers is on indefinite hiatus as the dismissal of the employee who built the email newsletter sparked one last public battle Wednesday over Chairman Chris Lauzen's management before new leadership takes over.
Kane County Connects grew to more than 20,000 readers under the direction of Rick Nagel, who came to the county six years ago as a veteran Fox Valley journalist. But Nagel clashed with Lauzen in May when the chairman took exception to the inclusion of Coroner Rob Russell's COVID-19 death stats in the newsletter.
The numbers were often days ahead of those reported by the county's public health department. That helped fuel confusion among county board members and residents who were skeptical about statistics that evolved with the medical community's understanding of the virus.
Lauzen initially pushed Nagel to remove the coroner's stats but decided it would be better to have the county board make that call. Nagel expressed concerns that removing the data would lead to further confusion stemming from a lack of transparency. He also publicly said Lauzen's push was a personal vendetta.
Lauzen often clashed with Russell, even backing candidates from both major parties running against Russell in multiple elections.
"If you disagree with him you are the black knight, which must be defeated at all costs," Nagel said at the time. "You can stand with Chris (Lauzen) or with the open and honest sharing of information."
In the end, the public battle resulted in the coroner's continuing to publish his data through his own methods. The county health department started linking to those stats on its website.
Shortly after, Lauzen proposed a county budget that eliminated Nagel's position at the end of the 2020 fiscal year, which for Kane County was Monday. The county's IT staff was tasked with taking over newsletter production, but there hasn't been an issue since Nagel's departure.
That absence pushed board member Drew Frasz to question Lauzen about Nagel during Wednesday's county board executive committee.
"He was terminated?" Frasz asked.
"The funding on that program ran out," Lauzen responded. "We're going in a different direction."
"Ending a program is one thing, but dismissing somebody is another," Frasz said. "I think that firing should be suspended until the new board can take it up. I don't want to get into another situation where we have a lawsuit from a person who was dismissed."
Lauzen suggested Frasz's questioning was fueled by a childhood relationship between Frasz and Nagel. But Frasz's reference to a potential lawsuit recalled a six-figure severance package for the county's former director of human resources after she filed a federal complaint claiming Lauzen engaged in a pattern of "harassment, intimidation and demotion."
Lauzen denied those charges at the time and denied any political or personal motivation involving Nagel's dismissal. Lauzen said the change saves taxpayers $100,000 in salary and benefits. The position was partially funded with $50,000 from Kane County riverboat gambling proceeds.
In comparison, the chief communications officer for the DuPage County Board receives a salary of $163,000.
Frasz called for reconsideration of Nagel's dismissal when the new county board takes over next week with Corinne Pierog as chair.
Reached for comment, Nagel wouldn't say if he'd welcome a return to the county. He said the newsletter built "a level of engagement you rarely see in government communications."
"I just want to publicly thank Chris Lauzen and the county board for providing the opportunity to serve," Nagel said. "I truly believe we've been able to build something special. I'm proud of the work we've done.
• Daily Herald Senior Writer James Fuller and Editor John Lampinen both serve with Nagel on the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association board.