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updated: 7/31/2013 9:27 AM

Editorial: Stop paying public officials to go quietly

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  • David Northern

      David Northern

  • Alex Clifford

      Alex Clifford

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Suburban taxpayers are paying a pretty penny for people to do government jobs.

So why is it we keep paying for public servants to go away quietly and stop doing their jobs?

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The latest example comes from the Lake County Housing Authority, whose board voted this month to pay former Executive Director Jeneen Smith-Underwood $122,000 so she'd leave the agency and make way for the return of former leader David Northern.

Northern quit his job at the Lake County Housing Authority in March to take a high-level job at the Philadelphia Housing Authority. He left with kind words for his replacement Smith-Underwood, saying he had "utmost confidence" in his former deputy director's ability to lead the agency, as Daily Herald Staff Writer Bob Susnjara reports.

But Northern's job in Philadelphia didn't work out. "I didn't feel it was a good fit," he told the Daily Herald.

So back in Lake County this month, it was out with Smith-Underwood (and her six-figure settlement) and in with Northern (who gets $5,000 from the Lake County Housing Authority toward the expense of moving back to the job he quit.)

Along with that, Northern gets a four-year contract, a $146,466 base salary, and use of a government car.

In return for her settlement, Smith-Underwood agreed not to say anything bad about the Lake County Housing Authority or any of its board members or employees.

So far, board members haven't offered a satisfactory reason for their switch back to Northern, praising him while also describing Smith-Underwood in a send-off reference letter as "an asset to any organization."

What is clear is the extra expense of paying off Smith-Underwood, coming at a time of layoffs and budget tightening at the Lake County Housing Authority in response to federal funding cuts.

We're reminded of Metra, where board members agreed to pay former CEO Alex Clifford up to $718,000 to go away after a disagreement with several board members that escalated into a scandal over charges of nepotism and cronyism at the commuter rail agency.

The amount and the circumstances are different at the Lake County Housing Authority, but the problem is the same: Boards of directors pouring away tax dollars to cover up for bungled decisions about leadership, and doing so without owning up to where they went wrong.

No public agency is so flush it can afford to give money away to those who are no longer handling the people's business.

No taxpayer should have to pay for such golden parachutes. It's as simple as that.

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