Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler's first act as head of county government was to allow Veterans Assistance Commission Superintendent Bradley Lavite to return to an office he had been banned from for 21 months under the previous administration of Alan Dunstan.
Associate Judge Luther Simmons administered the oath of office to Prenzler, a Republican who defeated long-time Democratic board chairman Dunstan in last month's election, in front of a crowd Monday morning that included elected officials and dozens of supporters.
He thanked his wife, Rita, and chidren, as well as taxpayers who put their trust in him.
"I thank God for the opportunity to serve," he said, and asked for prayers for those in government.
Shortly before the swearing-in ceremony took place in county board chambers, Prenzler issued a release saying it was time to allow Lavite back into the administration building, as well as other county properties where his ban applied.
A veteran of military service in Iraq, Lavite had been exposed to multiple detonations of improvised explosive devices and engagements with enemy forces. He has continued to function as head of the commission from other locations in spite of the lockout, which stemmed from a post-traumatic stress episode in which he kicked out the windows of a Wood River police car in March 2015.
After the incident, Lavite’s psychologist had pronounced him fit to return to work, but the former administration argued that public safety required the ban.
“The previous administration claimed this was about public safety, but the reality is it was about much more,” Prenzler said in a statement. “I feel those in charge at the time wanted to diminish his character and keep him quiet because he was questioning cuts to VAC funding.”
The commission hired Hamel attorney Tom Burkart who sued to regain access for Lavite and for his salary. The complaint also included a petition for the county auditor to pay legal fees that the commission had approved.
Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs dismissed the complaint; however the Fifth District Appellate Court reversed him in August. When the case returned, Stobbs recused himself and it was assigned to visiting judge William Becker of Clinton County.
Until recently, the county finance department had refused to pay the commission's legal bills, and in a petition for contempt, Burkart recommended incarcerating county officials and giving them keys to their own cells, in the form of an agreement to pay his bill.
A civil rights case against Dunstan, former county administrator Joseph Parente, State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons and Sheriff John Lakin, brought on behalf of Lavite by Burkart, remains pending in federal court. Magistrate Judge Reona Daly handles pre-trial proceedings. John Gilbert and others from Sandberg Phoenix represent the defendants.
Lavite, a major in the U.S. Army, served two combat tours during Operation Iraqi Freedom and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
County Board member Mick Madison, Republican from Bethalto, agreed with the decision to allow Lavite back into county buildings.
"I'm happy for Brad and his family," Madison said. "I'm sorry he had to go through this for as long as he did and I welcome him back with open arms."
Madison, who supported Lavite at a rally in August, said he knows Lavite sacrificed a lot for his country and is glad this chapter is over.
"It's been too long," he said. "Today is a new day, a fresh start."
Newly elected County Board member Phil Chapman, Republican from Highland, also a U.S. Army veteran, said he was glad to see Prenzler take immediate action on behalf of Lavite.
“I also look forward to restoring the funding for VAC before the cuts were made,” Chapman said.
Veterans Assistance Commissions are formed by veterans’ organizations within a county, and once formed, the Military Veterans Assistance Act requires that the county provide office space and approve a “reasonable budget” funded by either the county’s general fund or a dedicated tax levy. Madison County establishes a levy for the VAC.
Lavite was scheduled to return to his office at noon on Monday.