December 10, 2022
Election


Election

Lou Ness runs for McHenry County Board nearly 20 years after high-profile Turning Point firing

Ness was fired in 2004 over concerns of mismanagement, misusing funds

Lou Ness is the lone Democratic candidate running for District 7 of the McHenry County Board. About 18 years ago, she was fired very publicly from Turning Point, a McHenry County domestic violence agency.

For almost two decades, Lou Ness has remained mostly quiet on her high-profile fallout with Turning Point, a Woodstock-based organization for domestic violence victims.

Eighteen years after she was fired over concerns about how she managed the company and its finances, Ness is in a three-candidate race for a seat on the McHenry County Board.

“I think about being a phoenix,” she said. “I completely recreated myself after that. It took me a long time.”

A 15-month investigation by the Illinois attorney general’s office at the time did not result in criminal charges, but it did lead Ness to withdraw from the world of politics for a significant time. Now that she’s seeking public office, the Democratic hopeful said she gets questions from voters asking how they can trust her.

“I say that a leader you can trust is a leader who takes responsibility when things break down,” she said. “I didn’t do what they said, but I’m accountable because I was the leader.”

Ness, who is the mother of Crystal Lake Democratic state Rep. Suzanne Ness, is one of three candidates competing for two seats representing the County Board’s District 7. The district sits in the middle of the county and includes all or part of Woodstock, Wonder Lake, McHenry, Bull Valley and Greenwood.

Questions around Ness’ management of Turning Point first came up when the domestic violence agency was attempting to open a new shelter in the early 2000s. Audits identified poor financial controls and the spending of restricted donations on staff salaries instead of construction, the Northwest Herald reported in April 2004. A planned grand opening for the shelter in March 2004 was canceled abruptly.

Across 2002 and 2003, Turning Point also mistakenly received more than $100,000 from the state’s Department of Human Services, the Northwest Herald reported. Instead of returning the money, Turning Point spent it on programming.

In total, the organization by 2004 was more than $400,000 in debt, according to an April 2004 Northwest Herald story.

Ness, who at the time was the organization’s executive director and had been with the organization for almost 20 years, was at the center of the controversy that followed. The nonprofit’s board of directors asked for Ness’ resignation in April 2004. When she refused, the board fired her.

Ness said last week she feels she was wrongly accused of possible criminal activity at the time, but acknowledged she was accountable for what happened due to her role at the organization.

“Who else would be accountable except the person in charge?” Ness said.

One of her opponents, Republican Brian Sager, who at the time was on Woodstock’s City Council and would be elected mayor within the year, said he remembers the story. He thinks Ness has proven to be a strong social advocate and that she should be thanked for her service.

He said he doesn’t consider her history with Turning Point something that would factor into his decision to vote for her, but others will make their own minds up.

“Candidates need to be considered based on their ability to contribute,” he said. “Not talking about anything in regards to … Republican or Democrat. Do I believe she’s an individual who could certainly serve as a competent and responsible and thoughtful County Board leader? The answer is yes.”

Ness’ other opponent, Republican incumbent board member Jeff Schwartz, said Turning Point is “near and dear” to him, and cited his involvement with the organization. He said he is “somewhat aware” of Ness’ history, but didn’t offer his opinion of her specifically.

“Generally what people have done in the past that’s dishonest tells you about their personality,” he said. “If you’ve been dishonest, you’re probably dishonest.”

Talking Point’s current executive director, Sarah Ponitz, began her role at the organization earlier this year and said she doesn’t personally know Ness. Ponitz said she was unable to elaborate on details surrounding Ness’ firing because it involves a former employee.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying anything about someone I don’t know,” Ponitz said.

After she was fired, a 15-month investigation by the state’s attorney general ensued, which found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Northwest Herald archives from July 31, 2005 show.

Ness subsequently sued Turning Point and its individual board members in 2005, along with Staff Management Inc., which handled Turning Point’s payroll and benefits, according to federal court records.

In the case, Ness argued the accusations against her had been false and she was never given the opportunity to discuss the claims, court documents state.

In a Sept. 8, 2005, Northwest Herald story, Batson disagreed with this sentiment.

“We most certainly had a meeting,” Batson said in 2005. “Was Lou present at a board meeting where she was given the opportunity to respond to some things? Yes.”

In April 2006, Turning Point and its board members were dismissed from the case. The judge also ultimately sided with Staff Management as well, ending the case.

Moving forward with the controversy, Ness said its taken a long time for her to get to the point of running for office. She also brought focus back to Turning Point and talked about how well its done over the years.

“You can really tell the enduring roots that were put down for that agency because it’s still here and it’s still providing service,” she said.

James Norman

James T. Norman

James also goes by Jake and became a journalist to pursue a love of writing. He originally joined the ranks to be involved with football, but over time fell in love with community reporting and explaining policies. You can catch him at his computer or your local meeting.