Editorial: Tollway hiring again shows why law must be changed

Late last year, we urged a change in state law that allows professional contracts to be awarded at the discretion of the Illinois Toll Highway Authority board.

Rather than seeking sealed bids and awarding the contract to the qualified bidder offering the lowest cost, current law allows the board to choose from among three finalists vetted by a blue-ribbon committee.

At the time, we were concerned about the awarding of a $157 million contract to a Lisle-based engineering company that employs the daughter of the tollway chair and the son of the chief tollway engineer.

Our opinion was blasted by tollway officials and some engineers who said we don't understand because we're not engineers. Clearly, they said, you can't just go with the lowest bidder - you must look at so many other factors when making the choice.

Given the potential of a conflict of interest and the definite perception of a conflict of interest, we were not moved by those arguments. Fast forward to this week, and it's clear we were right.

Daily Herald transportation writer Marni Pyke reported this week that the tollway authority has paid more than $636,000 over seven months as part of an estimated $6.6 million contract with a politically connected communications firm.

The communications firm, Morreale Communications, was hired, tollway officials said, as part of a larger contract with engineers WSP USA Inc. and was selected based on its merits. Neither contract was competitively bid in a traditional, transparent process as a construction contract would be

What's the rub with Morreale? Its CEO is Kim Morreale, who is married to Chicago's only Republican state representative, Michael McAuliffe. The tollway board is appointed by the governor, also a Republican.

Whereas we can be accused of not understanding engineering contracts (even though it doesn't change our mind on the bidding process) we do understand communications. This contract, while legally awarded, should have been done in a more transparent way to the lowest qualified bidder. It's that simple and it's why the General Assembly should change the law.

And, by the way, questioning the process has nothing to do with the gender of Kim Morreale, the CEO, who complained that the questions "continue to encourage dialogue that evaluates a woman's success by her husband's."

No, what it does is encourage discussion to remove all perception of conflict from the selection process for an expensive communications contract by a public agency.

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