Letter from Lake in the Hills village employees sheds light on Gerald Sagona's resignation

LAKE IN THE HILLS – The Village Board put its longtime top administrator on leave last summer to appease Lake in the Hills managers who were fed up with Gerald Sagona’s “abhorrent, undignified, embarrassing and degrading” conduct, according to a letter obtained by the Northwest Herald.

The letter, signed by management staff, tells a story that contrasts with statements made by Sagona and Lake in the Hills Village President Paul Mulcahy at the time of the resignation. Sagona, who had served as village administrator for two decades, told the Northwest Herald in August that he was resigning for personal reasons and wanted to focus on his family. Mulcahy praised his leadership and his contributions to the village. Mulcahy wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Sagona. Only after the newspaper filed an earlier Freedom of Information Act request in August did it become clear that Sagona had been put on leave before he resigned.

In the letter sent to Mulcahy and all of the elected board members the day before Sagona was put on leave, management employees said Sagona’s management practices were “ineffective and inappropriate.”

Village leaders fought to keep the letter private. They provided the letter to the Northwest Herald nearly two months after the Illinois Attorney General’s Office said village officials had “improperly withheld a copy of a letter concerning a public official.” The names and titles of the people who signed the letter were redacted.

The village initially had denied the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request for the letter. The Northwest Herald challenged that decision with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. The Attorney General’s Office sided with the newspaper.

Sagona was placed on administrative leave July 26, according to a letter sent to him from Mulcahy. Sagona resigned shortly after that.

On July 25, an unknown number of people who identified themselves as “management staff” asked Mulcahy to address problems with Sagona’s management. In the letter, employees described the workplace culture under Sagona as one of “fear, intimidation and hostility.” They said the only way forward was for Sagona to be removed.

“We can no longer ignore the risk of harm his unwanted conduct and unpredictable behavior has upon our mental and physical health; each of us reports experiencing undue stress and anxiety working under his direction,” the letter states. “We personally find his conduct abhorrent, undignified, embarrassing and degrading.”

The letter notes that two times, in 2013 and 2015, attempts to fix problems with Sagona were “unsuccessful.” Sagona was responsible for a high turnover in the village’s staff, and the village had difficulty in replacing management positions because of the reputation Sagona had in the field, the letter states.

“This turnover has resulted in lost time, the expenditure of unnecessary resources and additional pressures on remaining staff,” employees wrote in the letter. “It is only expected to continue.”

Employees – who asked in the letter that their names remain confidential while the matter was being resolved – said the only solution was to get rid of Sagona.

In response to the letter, Sagona told the Northwest Herald that he had to deal with many significant personnel and operational problems in the village in his last few years in office.

Sagona said in the statement that his performance was always judged as “superior or commendable” in the written evaluations he received during his 20 years with the village.

“My record of accomplishments, and my commitment as a public servant to address issues and demand accountability, clearly outweighs any criticism, slanderous comments, or unfounded allegations levied against me by some disgruntled employees,” Sagona said in the statement. 

Sagona also sent the Northwest Herald several letters of recommendation and thanks that he received after he resigned from attorney Richard Flood, Mulcahy and the Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Interfaith Food Pantry. 

Although Mulcahy said he put Sagona on leave because of the letter, he also praised Sagona’s work in the village, noting Sagona’s accomplishments including developing the first comprehensive capital improvement plans for the village’s facilities and infrastructure, acquiring land for Sunset Park and creating the village’s Rotary Club.

“[There is] no one person employed by the village over the years, maybe in the history of the village, that has had as much to do with what the village is today as Jerry Sagona,” Mulcahy said Thursday.

Problems with Sagona were always addressed, Mulcahy said. He would not comment on how they were addressed. 

Village Trustee Ray Bogdanowski confirmed that the letter led to Sagona’s departure. He said there had been complaints about Sagona before, but never by a group of employees.

“It wasn’t like this was the first time,” Bogdanowski said. “It was the first time they were unified and put exactly what the issues were in writing.”

Bogdanowski praised Sagona’s work as village administrator, but he said his people skills fell short.

“He’s probably one of the best – he did a lot for the village,” Bogdanowski said. “But the dealing with people aspect – there was a weakness there.”

Although the Attorney General’s Office determined Feb. 23 that the village improperly withheld the letter from the Northwest Herald, Mulcahy said he was given direction from the Village Board to not release the letter. The letter originally was requested by the Northwest Herald in a Freedom of Information Act request Aug. 31, and it was received April 14. 

The village denied the original request for the letter for reasons including that the records would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and that the record was a preliminary draft or note with opinions. Mulcahy said he didn’t think the letter should be released to the public because it was “just an opinion of some employees.”

Because the recommendation from the Attorney General’s Office was not binding, there was no set timeline on when the village needed to send the document, said Annie Thompson, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office.

• News Editor Brett Rowland contributed to this story.

DOCUMENTS: The July 25, 2016, staff letter regarding Gerald Sagona.

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