By Elizabeth Donald
For the Times-Tribune
The Madison County Board approved funding for a lawsuit against itself after a closed-session discussion on Feb. 20, after a long-standing feud between county administration and the Veterans Assistance Council.
In 2016, the VAC sued Madison County after the previous administration banned its superintendent, Brad Lavite, from entering county buildings following a breakdown related to combat post-traumatic stress disorder. Lavite’s access to county buildings was eventually restored, after months of controversy that became a major point in the 2016 election.
The VAC is an independent organization managed by the leaders of veterans’ groups in the area, but is funded through county appropriations.
The 2016 budget allocated $517,224 for the VAC, of which $364,424 was appropriated for administration and $152,800 was paid out in direct aid to veterans. But the legal bills incurred by the VAC’s independent legal counsel, Tom Burkart and Burkart Law Offices, required funds beyond the budget, including paying prior years’ bills from current years’ appropriations, according to county records.
At the time, county leaders initially declined to transfer funds from the auxiliary fund to pay for the lawsuit.
However, the court has since ordered the county to transfer the funds. The county appealed, but the appellate court found in favor of the VAC, which it ruled had the right to make its own decisions about dispensing the funds.
“We pause briefly to acknowledge that there are fair questions about whether the VAC’s demand for payment of this expense was shortsighted or lacked discernment,” the court’s opinion read. “With autonomy comes the freedom to make wise and unwise decisions. The decisions and performance of the elected superintendent and the VAC Executive Committee will ultimately be graded by those they serve.”
The appellate court directed the county to pay the remaining balance plus interest, but also admonished the VAC that in the future, any appropriation beyond its budget should require a supplemental emergency appropriation from the county board and would be approved at the board’s discretion.
The county board went into executive session to discuss the issue at length, but eventually voted 23-1 in favor of following the court’s order and appropriating the funds. Board member Liz Dalton (D-Collinsville) was the sole no vote, while five others were absent.
Lavite filed a civil rights lawsuit against the county, which was eventually dismissed. He and VAC leaders also alleged that outgoing county administrators deleted records regarding his employment, which also was dismissed by a U.S. magistrate who ruled that the records were saved in an alternate format, not destroyed.