County chairman’s cronyism

Sources: former economic and planning director was coerced into resigning, signing gag agreement while Scott Christiansen recruited a ‘not-qualified’ candidate and increased position’s pay 30 percent

Recently appointed Republican Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen (R) recommended increasing the pay for the county’s Regional Planning and Economic Director 30 percent from $65,227 per year to $85,000 per year, after recruiting former banker, TV personality and weathercaster Sue Mroz for the position, according to several sources. Mroz’s appointment was possible after former Regional Planning and Economic Director Charlene Coulombe was “coerced” into resigning, sources alleged.

In return for resigning, Coulombe reportedly received a large monetary severance package and was strongly urged to sign a “gag” agreement to not disclose terms of the resignation or severance package. Sources said Coulombe signed the agreement.

The increase in pay, recruitment of Mroz, hiring of Mroz’s part-time assistant and alleged coercion of Coulombe to resign, has raised the ire of some county employees who wanted anonymity.

Christiansen acknowledged recruiting Mroz and said, “She was my first choice. Her commitment to the community fits well for the community.”

Christiansen’s fellow Republican, Winnebago County Board Member Pete MacKay (R-5), called Mroz’s appointment an “$85,000-a-year ornament.” He added that it was “the worst appointment I’ve ever seen,” and alleged Mroz was “absolutely not qualified and grossly overpaid.”

In response to MacKay’s comments, Christiansen replied, “That’s ridiculous. She came over [from U.S. Bank] for exactly what she was making. She’s already done some terrific things we’ll be announcing shortly.

“Obviously, it’s a comment from someone who’s ill informed.”

Democratic County Board Member Jim Hughes (D-11) declined comment until he could review the situation and meet with her to discuss goals and ideas.

During an interview Sept. 9, Mroz described her qualifications primarily as being media savvy and well-connected to community leaders. She cited her more than 23 years of work in television and nearly nine years as a vice president at U.S. Bank as strengths for her being hired. She also said she has a college degree in meteorology.

Mroz added: “This was not a position I sought.” When asked who recruited her, Mroz initially said she “couldn’t remember,” but later said “I believe it was Scott Christiansen.” Mroz later concluded that Christiansen did recruit her.

Although Mroz said she was “not in anyway affiliated with KMK” Media Group Inc., she acknowledged writing KMK’s press releases, which urged voters to approve the jail tax referendum in 2002. KMK received $24,075 from Winnebago County Citizens for Public Safety 2002, the well-financed committee that pushed that jail tax.

When asked if the planning and economic development position has changed into a public relations job, Mroz said public relations is an important part of achieving her goals of advocating commercial business growth, and rail and airport service.

In contrast to Mroz’s employment history and educational background, prior to being hired in 2000 by Winnebago County, Coulombe was executive director of Economic and Industrial Development in Bolingbrook, Ill., for seven years. MacKay said Coulombe had 17 years of experience in economic development and 12 years in banking.

Other sources said Coulombe had a college degree commensurate with the position, and a demanding certification from the National Development Council, a non-profit community and economic development organization.

Coulombe also spent eight years as the economic development director for Cicero, Ill. The last few years of her tenure were under Village President Betty Loren-Maltese, whose projected release date from a California federal prison is Feb. 12, 2010.

Indicted in 2000, Loren-Maltese was sentenced in 2003 on racketeering and conspiracy charges that bilked Cicero of $12 million in a 1990s insurance scam. Since the 1920s, Cicero has been a haven for organized crime members of the Chicago mafia called “The Outfit.”

Like Mroz, Coulombe was also reportedly recruited to her Winnebago County position. However, Coulombe’s recruitment was part of a national search for a well-qualified candidate to manage the county’s newly merged planning, zoning, building and mapping departments.

Reportedly, Rockford officials originally considered hiring Coulombe, but hired Jim Caruso as Rockford’s director of Community Development. How Winnebago County officials became aware that Coulombe was seeking a job with Rockford is not known. However, it is known that Coulombe did not send a résumé to Winnebago County officials.

Coulombe managed 26 employees in 2000. At the time Coulombe “resigned,” she managed 19 employees with no assistant.

Unlike Coulombe, however, Mroz will have a part-time assistant that MacKay said will “hold her hand” until Mroz gets an on-the-job education about the position.

That assistant is supposed to be Judy Barnard, who left her full-time position last month as deputy county administrator. Barnard will be paid $23.72 per hour for her services, which equates to $24,668.80 per year, based on a 20-hour week.

Assuming Barnard logs 20 hours per week, the total of Mroz and Barnard’s salaries is $109,668, versus Coulombe’s former salary of $65,227.

During an interview last month, Barnard was not sure when she would begin her new job, due to a death in her family.

Sources asserted that Christiansen never discussed issues with Coulombe before she was allegedly asked to resign by County Administrator Steve Chapman. In response to a question of whether Christiansen asked Chapman to speak with Coulombe about resigning, Chapman said: “I’m not getting into that.” Chapman also refused comment on any other questions concerning Coulombe’s “resignation.”

When asked whether he asked Chapman to speak with Coulombe about resigning, Christiansen said, “All I know is they talked and she resigned.”

Christiansen added that he didn’t know anything about Coulombe’s severance package.

Christiansen’s Democratic opponent in the fall election, Paul Gorski, said: “Ms. Mroz’s experience as a television weather personality, as a business banker, and as a community activist, while impressive, doesn’t appear to demonstrate substantial experience in either regional planning or economic development. Considering that she was offered a substantial pay increase compared to her predecessor, one would assume she would bring considerable experience in either planning or economic development. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case. …

“Scott Christiansen’s appointment of Sue Mroz as economic development director and his support for the recent bonding for road construction demonstrate his short-sighted plans for the county. He’s just throwing a name and money at our problems without seriously reviewing the economic impact,” Gorski said.

Gorski is also challenging Christiansen’s May appointment as chairman in state court. Gorski asserts the county board was legally obligated to appoint a county board member rather than an outsider like Christiansen.

Should Gorski lose in the lower court, Gorski said Sept. 10 he is prepared to appeal the rulings to the Illinois Appellate and Supreme courts before the November election. He made his comments on WNTA 1330-AM radio’s Stephanie Caltergerone Show.

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