Madison County has a new treasurer and Wood River has a new County Board representative, but the Madison County Board is still in transitional turmoil.
At the opening of Wednesday’s meeting, State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons spoke to the County Board reiterating his continuing concern that the board may not be valid. He said he still believes that the board needs another meeting for reorganization, and while he does not intend to state it at the beginning of every meeting, he wanted the board to know that his objection stands.
During the initial reorganizational meeting on Dec. 5, incoming County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler handed the gavel to Steve Adler to run the meeting, which led to concerns expressed by several County Board members that the meeting might not be legal. Adler was an 11-year member of the County Board, but had not run for reelection, and thus was neither an elected nor appointed official at that meeting.
Under county ordinances, only the chairman or the chairman pro tem can lead a meeting of the County Board. The Madison County State’s Attorney’s and the Illinois Attorney General’s offices advised that the actions taken at that meeting, including swearing in the new board, should be done again to ensure there is no question about their legality.
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However, Prenzler has declined to do so, stating he has ruled as chairman that the meeting was legal. “It is of no significance that I appointed someone under my immediate supervision to speak (at that meeting),” Prenzler said.
Board Member Art Asadorian, D-Granite City, tried twice to make a motion for a new reorganizational meeting to legitimize the actions of the new board. First Prenzler disallowed the motion, stating that it should be saved for new business at the end of the agenda. When that time came, he said that Asadorian’s motion was out of order.
“Are you denying me the right to make a motion?” Asadorian said.
Prenzler rapped the gavel and declared Asadorian out of order. He said if Asadorian wants to call a special meeting, he should collect signatures from other board members.
“What position are you?” Asadorian asked.
“I am chairman,” Prenzler replied.
“Are you sure that is all that you think you are?” Asadorian asked. Shouting briefly erupted in the board chambers before order was restored.
The contentious meeting went into closed session twice: once to discuss the appointment of Herb Clay to the mental health board, and once to discuss the ongoing litigation between Madison County and the Veterans Assistance Commission over the case of Superintendent Brad Lavite, who was barred from his office in the administration building for more than a year after an episode of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Edward Pinnell and Anthony Traxler were re-nominated by outgoing Chairman Alan Dunstan for the mental health board and approved by the County Board on Nov. 16. At the time, board members questioned whether the appointments should wait until the new board was sworn in, but were told that the appointments expired at the end of November and needed to be renewed.
Prenzler said he believes that was inaccurate. “Those were not Alan Dunstan’s appointments to make; those were mine to make,” Prenzler said. “Because they haven’t begun their terms, we are going to rescind them.”
Prenzler said he had “no concerns” about Pinnell and Traxler’s qualifications for the mental health board, “but we have two outstanding people for that board.” He insisted the move was “not political.”
But Board Member Nick Petrillo, D-Granite City, protested, stating that the mental health board is a volunteer position. “They have given up their time to serve on that board,” he said. “Knowing and working with these people, in my own mind I would wonder why we would make this change other than ‘Because I can.’ These people are quality individuals with great integrity, and they’re not afraid to ask the questions.”
However, the board voted to rescind its own appointments in a split vote.
Prenzler had nominated David Baker and Herb Clay to take their places. According to resumes, David Baker is a registered behavioral health nurse with 20 years of clinical management experience in chemical dependency. He is currently working on a masters degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. However, Prenzler withdrew Baker’s nomination on the floor.
Herb Clay’s resume lists 30 years’ experience as chief probation officer, followed by work as an investigator in pharmaceutical litigation for area law firms. Clay was also an Edwardsville city alderman who served two years’ probation for cocaine possession after his arrest in 2003 and guilty plea in 2004. During a drug interdiction in East St. Louis, Clay tried to flee, nearly striking police cars before he was stopped and refused to be handcuffed, leading East St. Louis officers to use a stun gun to subdue him.
The board went into a short closed session to discuss Clay’s appointment, then reopened the meeting to approve him in a 16-12 vote, with Philip Chapman, R-Highland, abstaining.
Chris Slusser was nominated last week to succeed Prenzler as treasurer. Slusser was chairman of the Madison County Republican Party through the fall election, in which the County Board’s balance shifted from a long-time Democratic majority to a Republican majority. Slusser himself was also elected to represent Wood River on the County Board, and was sworn in on Dec. 5.
Slusser said he has since resigned as chairman of the Madison County GOP after learning he would be nominated as treasurer. He said he did not perceive any conflict between serving as treasurer and as a political party chairman; after all, Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida is chairman of the Madison County Democratic Party.
Instead, Slusser said it was a personal decision. He has two daughters younger than 2 and “a very understanding wife,” he said. “At some point, something’s got to give,” Slusser said. “I miss out on a lot of things by being involved in so many things.”
Slusser said he had achieved the goals he had set when he became chairman of the Madison County GOP, especially flipping the balance on the county board. “I feel good about handing it off to someone else,” he said.
Chrissy Dutton was nominated to take Chris Slusser’s seat on the County Board, but board member Art Asadorian objected because Slusser’s resignation letter had not yet been presented to the board. Prenzler instructed County Clerk Debra Ming-Mendoza to read the letter, at which point Prenzler called a voice vote. There were a few “no” votes, but Dutton was approved and sworn in.
Likewise Slusser was approved by voice vote, though there were a number of “no” votes spoken. “I take this role very seriously, and I just want to do this job with excellence and integrity,” Slusser said.
Slusser said he approved of the choice of Chrissy Dutton to take his place. “In my opinion, she’s an upgrade over me,” Slusser said.
Slusser said he has not heard any negative backlash on his intention to resign the seat he just won – instead, he said his constituents are congratulating him. “It would be one thing if I was taking a bureaucratic job, but since it’s an elected office, it’s a step up and I will represent the whole county,” Slusser said. “No one has yet expressed any disappointment.”
Department heads postponed again
What did not appear on the agenda: the nominations for new department heads.
At the first reorganizational meeting of the new County Board on Dec. 5, Prenzler had proposed replacing seven department heads with his own nominees. County Board approval is required to confirm department heads under Madison County ordinances. But the board protested that they had not had time to consider the candidates and had not received their resumes, and so the votes were postponed to the regular meeting on Wednesday.
Six of the existing department heads signed separation agreements totaling more than $185,000 for four months’ salary and benefits, estimates based on their 2015 salaries as reported to the News-Democrat’s public salary database. The seventh was facilities management director Kurt Geschwend, who remains an employee of the county. Prenzler confirmed, however, that Geschwend would not remain as director of his department.
Douglas Hulme was confirmed as county administrator at the last meeting, replacing Joseph Parente. Hulme had served as chief deputy treasurer under Prenzler. Michael Firsching, a veterinarian and another political ally of Prenzler’s, was approved Wednesday as director of animal control.
The remaining four were supposed to be voted at this week’s regular meeting, but were withdrawn. “I’m going to pull those back and take more time,” Prenzler said. “We are evaluating … to make sure we have had the full opportunity to review anything and make sure that we review all the circumstances.”
However, County Board Member Michael Parkinson, D-Granite City, protested that two of the department heads had already been installed without board confirmation.
Prenzler confirmed that Steve Adler, nominated as director of administration services, and Kristin Poshard, nominated as director of community development, have been hired as county employees under other job descriptions by Hulme.
Poshard will earn a salary of approximately $92,000 under a title of “chief deputy.” Adler was hired on Dec. 9 as deputy county administrator at $44.80 per hour, Prenzler said. That would be an estimated $93,184 annually, based on a 40-hour work week.
“We just decided to do that because he has special competencies and we needed those right away,” Prenzler said. “This county government has really been without leadership since the election, and we needed to get good leadership involved as quickly as possible.”
The Madison County State’s Attorney’s Office confirmed that they have been asked by county board members to research whether Adler and Poshard’s hirings were legal.
Prenzler said he believes the resistance to his appointments is political. “I’ve watched like 500 appointments be made, and there’s never been any discussion… it’s obvious there’s never been any transparency before,” he said. “We are going to do a better job.”
Among other actions:
▪ Attorney Don Weber’s name was withdrawn from nomination to the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention Council, in favor of accountant Jeremy Plank, who was approved. Weber, a former prosecutor and prominent Republican, has been a close political ally of Prenzler’s and was the center of a controversy during Prenzler’s second run for treasurer, after Prenzler arranged for Weber to purchase his ex-wife’s delinquent taxes in a no-bid zero-interest sale prior to the tax auction. At the time, several board members called for Prenzler’s resignation and a protest march took place outside a Prenzler fundraiser.
▪ Troy Mayor Allen Adomite’s name was withdrawn from nomination to the Southern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission.