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posted: 4/13/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: Transparency with public severance agreements

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  • The House has passed a bill that would make it illegal for public bodies to sign confidentiality clauses in severance packages like the one included in a buyout of Metra CEO Alex Clifford last year.

       The House has passed a bill that would make it illegal for public bodies to sign confidentiality clauses in severance packages like the one included in a buyout of Metra CEO Alex Clifford last year.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Sometimes public officials need to be reminded that the money they spend comes from the public.

This doesn't make them evil necessarily. Most have the best of intentions. But they can grow out of touch, in some cases insulated from the public they serve.

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We can't even begin to count how many times over the years we've had to fight on your behalf with one government agency or another for the details of a severance agreement that was reached with a departing government employee.

Sometimes the employees were doing lousy jobs and those in power decided buyouts were the best way to get rid of the problem without a fuss. Sometimes they were employees who were just out of sync with a new direction. On occasion, they may have been people who knew where all the skeletons were hidden.

We'd ask for the details of the settlement. "I can't tell you because there's a confidentiality clause," someone would say.

Sometimes they'd even try to argue that the amount of money paid out in the settlement was confidential!

Our view of it has always been: Well, why did you sign a confidentiality clause? This is public money and the public has a right to know what you're doing with it and why. If the public is kept in the dark on these things, how can it judge whether that money is being spent wisely?

It seems like such an obvious thing, and yet this arrogant practice has been allowed to go on for years.

Finally, there is light at the end of that dark tunnel. The Illinois House last week voted unanimously to pass legislation sponsored by Republican Renee Kosel of New Lenox and Democrats Marty Moylan of Des Plaines and Frances Ann Hurley of Chicago that outlaws the practice.

The measure would ban government agencies from including confidentiality clauses in their severance agreements.

It was prompted by the scandalous severance agreement the Metra board of directors signed last year with ousted CEO Alex Clifford. He was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to leave and the confidentiality clause was a nice way of telling him to keep his mouth shut about the political shenanigans taking place at the commuter rail service.

That episode certainly provided a stunning example of why this legislation is needed. But it's not the only example. Confidentiality clauses have been included routinely in public severance agreements for years and ought not to have been.

Florida already has a ban like this in place. Several other states are considering one. We're happy that Illinois is headed in that direction.

We strongly endorse the measure, urge its passage by the Illinois Senate and its support from the governor.

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