Metro-East News

County Mental Health Board nominee with anti-gay views withdrawn from consideration

Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler withdrew nominations for two candidates to the Mental Health Board after County Board members and allies of the LGBTQ community raised concerns.

The chairman nominated two religious leaders to the board that oversees funding for mental health services in Madison County. The Rev. Robert Weise and Ben Tolly, superintendent of the Gateway Conference of the Free Methodist Church, were nominated, but Prenzler later decided to withdraw their names.

Weise, a professor emeritus at Concordia Seminary, said he does not "agree" with the "lifestyle" of homosexuality or transgender people, though he said he is willing to listen and talk with people "who struggle with this." Tolly said he believes there is a "certain way to live life," but said that does not mean it's "OK to denigrate" someone.

Neither Weise nor Tolly immediately responded to a request for comment.

Allies of the LGBTQ community expressed concerns about if the two nominees could set aside their religious beliefs on homosexuality and transgender people in order to make fair decisions about what kind of programs receive funding.

When asked why he decided to withdraw the two nominees, neither of whom have clinical mental health experience, Prenzler said, "I keep my ears open. I listen to people."

County Board members must approve nominees, though the chairman has the authority to choose them. Lisa Ciampoli, a Republican board member from Collinsville, asked to postpone approving the nominees at the February meeting because of confusion surrounding the appointment schedule.

Prenzler's two other nominees will still go up for County Board approval — David Nosacka, chief financial officer for the Southern Illinois Division of the Hospital Sisters Health System, and Jacquelyn Clement, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor emerita of primary care and health systems nursing.

If approved at Wednesday's board meeting, Nosacka would replace Walter Hunter and Clement would replace Charlotte Charbonnier. Michael J. Durbin and Christine Wallace will remain on the board.

On top of concerns about the nominees' beliefs, some County Board members expressed reservations about creating instability on the Mental Health Board by replacing four appointees of the seven-person board.

"I think it's good to have new ideas and new faces on every board, including the County Board," said Tom McRae, a Republican Board member from Bethalto. "But sometimes it’s not good to have a wholesale change. I'm not convinced at this point that the Mental Health Board is doing a bad job. On the other hand, I think you have to have a balance of having new folks and new ideas."

Michael Parkinson, a Democrat from Granite City, said replacing a majority of the Mental Health Board with nominees of the chairman's choice could have given Prenzler the ability to influence where the board's funding goes without County Board oversight.

Prenzler said regardless of how many of his nominees are appointed to the Mental Health Board, the board runs independently from him.

"Once they're on that board, they don’t answer to me," Prenzler said. "I've got other things to work on. It’s not my job to do the Mental Health Board’s job through them."

Prenzler also denied rumors that he was trying to replace the majority of appointees to make way for a contract with County Administrator Doug Hulme's father-in-law, Mike Morrison. In September, the chairman proposed an additional $500,000 in funding to the Mental Health Board for medically assisted treatment for people addicted to heroin.

The funding never materialized after board members on the Finance Government Operations Committee removed it from the 2018 proposed budget because of a lack of detailed plans for how the funds would be used.

Hulme's father-in-law is the regional vice president of Missouri-based substance abuse treatment service Bridgeway Behavioral Health. He partnered with his son-in-law to speak at a town hall on opioid addiction at Alton Memorial Hospital in February, raising questions about whether it was appropriate for family relations to be involved in county efforts to address opioid addiction. Morrison's wife, Meredith Parker, is manager of Clinical Services at Alton Memorial.

Some Madison County substance abuse treatment programs receive funding from the Mental Health Board for their services.

Hulme said he has heard the rumors about wanting to hire his father-in-law's services for more than a year.

"There's always nasty rumors. I suppose no good deed goes unpunished," Hulme said. "I've never made any secret that he’s my father-in-law."

Hulme said he has a passion for improving access to opioid treatment because he has seen first-hand the "devastation" addiction can cause in a family.

"I've seen the devastation and I've seen the slow response," Hulme said. "(In Madison County), sometimes the best and only solution is for people to go to jail. At least there the family can breathe at ease that (their loved one) is not going to die. The Mental Health Board is an opportunity potentially to get help to some of these people."

Hulme said he would continue to explore the possibility of providing more funding in the 2019 budget.

Parkinson, the board member from Granite City, said he hoped any funding for such a serious problem would go before the County Board as well as the Mental Health Board.

"The board members understand there is a need for care for people addicted to opioids. It’s a huge crisis," Parkinson said. "However, we want to do it in the best possible way that is the most cost-effective way. We have yet to see any plan of what that is. To jump into anything if we don’t know what that plan is would be foolish and irresponsible."