It seems pretty clear that the Illinois Tollway got a bargain when it hired Laura Durkin as general manager of engineering. The previous person in that role was paid more than $120,000 a year; Durkin is making a little more than $80,000. But what's not so clear is how well qualified Durkin is for a job she won over nine competing applicants.
Durkin is sister-in-law to House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican. In a story by our Marni Pyke Monday, the tollway insists the House leader made no calls on his sister-in-law's behalf and was not given by her as a reference, so, in the words of spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis, "The contention that patronage was somehow in play is not applicable."
To the contrary, the mere existence of the family relationship between a top legislative leader and an executive for a state agency like the tollway makes questions at least "applicable." Given the reputation that the tollway has been trying to shake as a haven for political and patronage hiring, the selection elevates Laura Durkin's hiring to the level of at least "curious."
And Illinoisans interested in good government have a right to have our curiosity satisfied. But tollway officials are having none of it. The tollway rejected the Daily Herald's Freedom of Information Act request to see Durkin's resume, and officials won't say what in her background led them to hire her for a job requiring five years "related" experience and oversight of documentation and processing of 240 construction-related contracts.
McGinnis said that despite its title, the general manager of engineering does not have to be an engineer. While that sounds odd, let's for a moment give the tollway that. The real question is what relevant qualifications does Durkin have?
On behalf of you and the public, we are appealing the tollway's rejection of our FOIA request. We agree with FOIA expert Don Craven that Durkin's prior work experience "is information that bears on her public duties in this position and is not a matter of personal privacy."
If Durkin truly is qualified to be general manager of engineering for the tollway, she surely ought not be penalized for having a brother-in-law who is the top Republican in the state House of Representatives.
At the same time, the relationship is sure to at least raise eyebrows for anyone who has watched Illinois government or the tollway operation for any length of time. Tollway officials ought to be willing to demonstrate why they considered her well qualified for the job.
"Releasing a simple resume seems like an ordinary action for any government body to take," said former Susan Garrett, head of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "What do they have to hide?"