Transit board seats give elected officials a second public paycheck

Daily Herald: On Guard

Nearly two dozen current and former suburban officials already collecting pay or pensions are among those costing taxpayers more than $1 million a year in salaries or health-care benefits for serving on transit boards.

A Daily Herald analysis of payroll records from the Regional Transportation Authority, Metra, Pace and Illinois State Toll Highway Authority shows nearly half of the combined members of those appointed boards already draw a salary or pension from holding public office, in many cases from serving as a suburban mayor or village president. The records were obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

The transit board members, whose main obligations are attending one or two board meetings per month, also are eligible for pensions when their transportation agency appointments end.

“It's a sweet gig if you can get it,” said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “It's fair to ask what the taxpayers are getting in exchange.”

Some of those board members argue that constituents get a lot in exchange.

“I believe in what I'm doing,” said Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, who makes $31,426 a year as a tollway director on top of his $111,840 salary as his city's top administrator. “My experience as mayor benefits the tollway and vice versa, but compensation is not the key issue at all.”

But one state legislator is making an issue out of the boards' compensation packages. Woodstock Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks has drafted two bills to strip pay and benefits from these transit agency boards as well as from the Chicago Transit Authority board of directors.

“I want to get rid of everything and give them reimbursements or stipends to cover the cost of attending the meeting,” Franks said. “That's how it works in the real world. They shouldn't get paid if they don't go to one of the 12 meetings they have.”

The records show that agencies already reimburse board members for costs associated with traveling to board meetings, if it is requested. Some board members even received reimbursement for tipping valets who parked their cars when they attend board meetings.

“I think one should pay their own tips,” Franks said. “This epitomizes what's wrong with fat cat insiders. As he valets his Cadillac and tips the guy who's actually working for a living, he asks the taxpayers to reimburse him. It's becoming a ruling class.”

All of the agency boards were created by legislative action, but the rules governing them are slightly different.

RTA, Metra and Pace board members are appointed by county boards and the governor taps tollway board members for service. Pace's bylaws require board members either be current or former elected municipal officials. Metra's bylaws don't allow board members who are currently holding elected office to accept the salaries from the elected post. RTA board members receive $25,000 a year in salary. Their Metra counterparts receive $15,000 a year. Pace board members receive $10,000 annually. None have time limitations on how long board members can serve.

That's how three RTA board members serving since the 1990s — former Chicago Heights Mayor Douglas Troiani, former state Rep. Donald Totten and former Lake County Administrator Ike Magalis — have been paid more than $1 million combined for their service over the years, records show. Totten and Troiani have been paid almost $400,000 each and Magalis has received almost $300,000 in pay from the RTA.

Magalis also receives an annual pension from the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund of nearly $147,000 for his 32 years of work in Lake County government, according to that agency's records.

The best paying transit board job is at the tollway, where board members make $31,426 a year for 12 meetings a year. Legislation only calls for the board members to receive $15,000 a year, but the Illinois Compensation Review Board a now-defunct commission overseen by the General Assemblydecided in 2008 that the job was worth more than twice that.

Weisner and Naperville Mayor George Pradel receive annual paychecks from the tollway in addition to their mayoral salaries. Weisner's $111,840 elected position is a full-time management post. Pradel makes $28,533 a year as mayor, a job sought by challengers Doug Krause and Kenn Miller in the April election. Weisner is not up for election this year.

The tollway also pays health-care benefits for Pradel, which have cost taxpayers more than $77,000 since he was appointed in 2001, according to tollway records. The mayor also receives health-care coverage through his city office.

Pradel defends the pay and benefits, saying that cutting these expenses wouldn't help the state's budget woes because the costs are paid by tollway users.

“I don't think people should work for nothing,” Pradel said.

Franks believes appointees should receive payment for what it costs them to attend meetings.

“These people should not receive any salary, any health-care benefits or any pension for this,” Franks said. “They're not employees and it's a very part-time job.”

Batavia Mayor and Pace board member Jeff Schielke takes issue with Franks' assessment of the boards' membership, calling it “political gamesmanship” and saying transit board members do a lot of work outside of meetings.

“The Pace job is fairly time consuming, specifically in a growth county like Kane County where you have a lot of transportation issues,” he said. “I'm insulted by Franks' opinion that this is some sort of political patronage plum and that we're sitting on this thing twiddling our thumbs.”

Schielke said he'd likely resign from the board if the salary was taken away. At $10,000 a year, he's made $84,167 from Pace since joining the board in August 2002. If he quit today, he'd receive a pension worth about $1,400 a year, according to the data provided by Pace.

“I've more than earned anything they're willing to give me,” said Schielke, whose mayor's salary is $28,356.

Other Pace board members agree.

“I serve on a number of unpaid committees that I take the expertise I gain from being on the Pace board to,” said Schaumburg Village President Al Larson, who has been a Pace board member since 1997. “But if it was all taken away, I'd have no objection to it.”

Larson, who faces Brian Costin in the April election for village president, has made $136,667 from his service on the Pace board since his appointment in 1997, in addition to the $20,578 annual salary he receives for his mayoral duties.

Orland Park trustee and Metra board member James Dodge believes the Metra salary system works best because it doesn't allow board members to “double dip,” he said.

“We can only take the Metra salary and I think that's a reasonable approach,” Dodge said.

Dodge only can accept the $15,000 Metra pay, not the $12,000 he would make for his Orland Park trustee job.

He also participates in Metra's health insurance program, which has cost taxpayers $139,408 since he joined the board in March 2004, according to Metra records.

The agency Dodge oversees made headlines last year when financial records indicated Metra's former Executive Director Phil Pagano took more than $400,000 in payments he wasn't authorized to receive. Pagano stepped in front of an oncoming Metra train shortly after the allegations came to light, killing himself. Since then, Metra has spent nearly $1 million on consultants and auditors to ensure the board has better oversight.

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform has not taken a position on Franks' bills, but Morrison questions why the Metra board wasn't held accountable for lax oversight.

“I think a lot of people are scratching their heads wondering what the Metra board was doing while Phil Pagano was looting the place,” Morrison said. “If they're not going to watch, why should we bother paying them?” Morrison asked.

Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke said being a Pace director is time-consuming and worth the $10,000 annual pay. His mayor's job pays him $ 28,356.
“I don't think people should work for nothing,” said Naperville Mayor George A Pradel, whose $ 31,426 yearly payment and health benefits as an Illinois Toll Highway Authority director are on top of his $ 28,533 mayor's pay.
Aurora Mayor Thomas Weisner makes $ 31,426 a year as an Illinois State Toll Highway Authority director as well as his $ 111,840 salary for the full-time job as Aurora's top administrator. “My experience as mayor benefits the tollway and vice versa, but compensation is not the key issue at all,” he said.
Jan Carlson of Batavia is paid $ 25,000 a year as an RTA director while also getting a $ 53, 427 annual pension from his former position as Kane County court clerk.
Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson is paid $ 10,000 a year and receives health benefits for his position as a Pace director. “I serve on a number of unpaid committees that I take the expertise I gain from being on the Pace board to,” said Larson, whose mayoral salary is $ 20,578.

Salaries for transit boards

<b>RTA</b>: $ 375,000

<b>Tollway</b>: $ 251,412.48

<b>Metra</b>: $ 175,000

<b>Pace</b>: $ 135,000

Source: Transit agencies