Trouble at Will County veterans agency shapes state law

VAC has hired its first permanent superintendent since controversy erupted a year ago

Raj Pillai questions the minutes from the July 12th meeting at the Veterans Assistance Commission Committee meeting at the Will County Office Building. Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Joliet.

Troubles at the Will County Veterans Assistance Commission over the past year led to a new state law that tightens up operations and oversight of the commissions throughout Illinois.

Gov. JB Pritzker, on Feb. 10, signed House Bill 2369, which spells out who gets to vote on commission matters, sets procedures for contracting, and establishes the authority of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office authority to investigate county commissions.

The Will County VAC governing board has been overhauled in the past year after an uprising among delegates sparked by a $495,000 no-bid marketing contract that was given to the associate of the former superintendent, the top administrator for the agency.

The executive board that was under fire for much of last year now is gone.

Veterans Assistance Manhattan delegate Robert Angone demands the committee listen to William Sutton at the Veterans Assistance Commission Committee meeting at the Will County Office Building. Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022, in Joliet.

Raj Pillai, who was on the outs with the former leadership as he pushed for change, now is president pro-tem of the VAC board, which will have an election next month to determine officers for the next year.

The new board on Tuesday voted to hire Jen Solum, who had been serving as interim superintendent through much of the upheaval, as the permanent superintendent.

“She went through what I would say was a trial by fire the past year as things were exposed, and she did a tremendous job,” Pillai said.

Solum is the first permanent superintendent since Kristina McNichol left to take a job with the city of Joliet in May as questions surfaced about the $495,000 marketing contract. The contract, according to a law firm’s report to the VAC in January, was never reviewed or approved by the VAC board.

Pillai said “key points” in the new law that came out of the Will County controversy include a provision that requires commissions to use the same procurement practices for contracts that are used by the county governments to which they are connected.

The new law also outlines who gets to vote on the VAC board.

The former executive board barred Pillai and other VAC delegates from voting.

The VAC consists of delegates from veterans service organizations around the county. But Will County set up an executive committee to vote on matters, excluding delegates.

A provision in the new law specifying the rights of all delegates to vote “was put into the legislation because the Will County VAC was saying where does it say in the law that we can’t do that,” said Andrew Tangen, president of the Illinois Association of County Veterans Assistance Commissions (IACVAC).

Tangen worked with legislators and the attorney general’s office in developing the law.

“The situation in Will County definitely influenced the IACVAC in its work with the legislature and the attorney general’s office to codify some of the provisions that are in the law now,” Tangen said.

Veterans Assistance Commissions advocate for veterans seeking benefits and provides financial assistance.

Solum, who was previously assistant superintendent, heads the staff at the Will County office, which is located at 2400 Glenwood Ave. in Joliet.