Board members find lack of openness about mold problems

Board members find lack of openness about mold problems

URBANA – Two Champaign County Board members who've looked over documents about the county's $24 million, still-unopened nursing home say they've found a lack of openness about mold problems there.

Ron Bensyl, a Republican from Royal, requested the documents a year ago, and saw some of them at the time.

Last week, the county released more documents to him, as well as to The News-Gazette, which had filed a Freedom of Information request, and to Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden, who is suing the county over similar documents. Another FOIA request garnered the documents for Carol Vorel, a WDWS reporter.

Bensyl said he was surprised by what he read.

"Last year, I requested significant information, only to find out last week I didn't get it all," he said. "I would have thought the county would be more forthcoming to its board members."

A fellow Republican, Greg Knott of St. Joseph, looked over the documents with Bensyl.

"As we were given more documents and we see all the fine details, if we had all those details at the time, we would have raised more questions," Knott said. "I wish the leadership would have provided the facilities committee with those details at the time."

Steve Beckett, the Urbana Democrat who heads the facilities committee, said many of the complaints are political in nature and timing.

He noted that Shelden filed his suit in early July and because of meeting dates, there has been no chance to discuss the problems in committee since then, Beckett said.

The bill for fixing the mold problem was about $1.7 million.

Mediation with contractors was scheduled to have begun Aug. 8, but Beckett said Friday there have been scheduling problems.

Whether the money issue is resolved in mediation, arbitration, or at last in litigation, Beckett said the county's best interests are served by listening to its lawyers. "My most important job is to collect as much money as possible, and the taxpayers should be grateful, because it's their money," he said.

Beyond money issues, though, Bensyl and Knott said they're concerned how information is passed through the county government.

Knott said he was angry to see Bensyl described as "the Lone Ranger" in a July 10, 2005, e-mail from Champaign County Co-Administrator Denny Inman to Beckett.

Bensyl had requested a chronology of when the mold appeared and when it was brought up in committee.

"As this issue has the potential for litigation," Inman wrote, "we do not need the Lone Ranger out there saying he is going to help us. He should at least have to say why he is making the request."

Bensyl said he is not at odds with county leadership. "I agreed to Mr. Beckett's request to keep the information confidential pending the resolution of this. I have kept this promise," he said.

Bensyl said "the comment was probably inappropriate" but that he would reserve his own comments for later.

Inman was unavailable for comment; he is on vacation until Aug. 14.

N-G files lawsuit against county board

CHAMPAIGN – The News-Gazette sued the Champaign County Board on Friday, asking a judge to order an index of documents relating to cost overruns at the Champaign County Nursing Home.

The newspaper filed a Freedom of Information request on July 17, asking for records about mold problems at the $24 million facility going back to Jan. 1, 2005, shortly before the mold was spotted.

The county complied with part of the request but withheld some of the documents on the grounds that they had been prepared expressly at the urging of an attorney, Neville M. Blimoria, contracted to protect the county's interests in negotiating with contractors for return of $1.7 million in mold remediation costs.

On Aug. 2, Champaign County Board Chair Barbara Wysocki denied an appeal from The News-Gazette and noted "you have completely exhausted your administrative remedies as to your FOIA request."

David C. Thies, the Urbana attorney representing The News-Gazette, argues in his complaint that the records are not exempt from FOIA, asks that the board produce the records and that the county pay the legal costs of the suit.

In a separate motion, Thies asked the court to order the county to produce an index of the records, with a description of each document denied and a statement explaining the reasons behind arguing for its exemption.

"We believe that these records can help shed light on problems with an important taxpayer-funded project," said News-Gazette Executive Editor John Beck. "Citizens of Champaign County have a right to know what caused problems in the construction of the nursing home they paid for."

Wysocki was unavailable for comment Friday after the suit was filed.

Urbana Democrat Steve Beckett, who heads the committee overseeing the construction, said he had not seen the suit but thought that news media could have discovered much of the information it sought. Beckett said there were reporters at full county board meetings, but very rarely at meetings of the facilities committee where most of the discussion about mold took place.

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