Why Lake County has suspended process to find a public works chief

  • The public works office at the Lake County government campus in Libertyville.

    The public works office at the Lake County government campus in Libertyville. Courtesy of Lake County

  • Lake County Public Works, top, is part of the government campus on Winchester Road in Libertyville.

      Lake County Public Works, top, is part of the government campus on Winchester Road in Libertyville. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 9/28/2022 6:12 PM

Following a national search and recruitment process, interviewing candidates and selecting two finalists, Lake County has suspended finding a public works director pending possible legislative action on the state level.

The about-face from the county board's public works, planning and transportation committee comes several months after county Administrator Gary Gibson was given the go ahead to fill the spot, which has been held on an interim basis for 2½ years.

 

That's much longer than usual for such a vacancy. Per state law, the county's public works director must be a registered professional engineer, which is not the case for municipalities.

Public works provides water and sanitary sewer service throughout Lake County. It operates and maintains 12 water distribution systems and three sewage treatment plants.

Austin McFarlane, who had been serving as public works operations manager, was named interim chief. But the 30-year county employee doesn't have the PE designation.

A proposed change in the Counties Code would broaden the candidate pool, supporters say. The proposal says a public works superintendent should have the PE registration, hold a degree in engineering from an accredited school or have at least 10 years' management experience in a municipal or public works department.

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Broadening the requirements initially was thought to be a possibility. But when lawmakers didn't act, Gibson in April was given the OK to proceed with a search.

The possibility has resurfaced as more local lawmakers are said to support changing the law. Potential action during the fall veto session in November and December or during the spring legislative session prompted a split decision by the seven-member county committee to stop the search.

The search will resume roughly in June regardless of whether no legislation passes or a bill is signed in law.

Jennifer Clark, committee chair, said there are qualified applicants and the selection process should continue.

"The public works department needs to have a permanent director. We have to go with the reality we have and rules we have," she said.

Waiting could lower the confidence in county hiring practices and hurt the applicant pool in the future, said opponents of the delay.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Committee member Jessica Vealitzek voted to wait.

"The whole point was fairness and parity" in the process, she said.

Committee vice chair Linda Pedersen said legislation proposing the change has been held up due to politics and has created an embarrassing situation for the county.

Board Chair Sandy Hart is not a member of the committee but participated in the discussion.

"You don't need to be an engineer to manage engineers," she said. "We owe it our employees and Lake County (lawmakers) to see what happens with this bill. I think it's the right thing to do."

The committee recommendation doesn't require a vote of the full county board.

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