Amid ethics concerns, Pritzker plans to oust tollway's board of directors

In an unprecedented move and with urging from Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, the General Assembly is expected to vote Tuesday on ousting the Illinois tollway board of directors amid ethics concerns.

A bill introduced Monday would end the terms of tollway directors and pave the way for Pritzker to appoint replacements by a Feb. 28 deadline.

"The governor-elect's administration is moving swiftly to restore the public's trust in the integrity of the government, starting with the Illinois tollway - where too little transparency and unethical behavior is unacceptable," Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudeyyeh said Monday.

Tollway officials including Chairman Robert Schillerstrom did not respond to requests for comment.

The bill follows a series of Daily Herald stories examining potential political favoritism in tollway contracts and hiring. That includes hiring House Republican Leader Jim Durkin's sister-in-law as engineering manager, although her background is in furniture sales; using a PR firm whose CEO is the wife of a Republican lawmaker on a $6.6 million contract; and selecting an engineering firm that employs the grown children of tollway executives for a $157 million contract.

"With the construction season around the corner, it's critical that billions' worth of road-building contracts aren't awarded to political insiders, and the tollway needs a fresh start to move forward with rebuilding Illinois," Abudeyyeh said.

The bill also would require the tollway board to amend its bylaws to direct members to avoid "potential" conflicts of interest - wording recently omitted in a bylaws update. The revised bylaws also left out references to the board's power to overturn vetoes by the chairman, a move policy experts found unusual.

Democratic state Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines pushed for a Senate hearing in July on tollway hiring and procurement irregularities.

"I'm thrilled that the General Assembly is willing to address some of the issues that have been brought up about the tollway and implement some changes and policies that protect consumers," Murphy said.

Republican state Rep. David McSweeney of Barrington Hills said he intends to vote for the change if it remains a stand-alone bill.

"It's reasonable for the new governor to pick his own team at the tollway board," McSweeney said.

Director Joseph Gomez of Northfield, who has been a frequent critic of Schillerstrom, said, "I congratulate the governor for making what looks to be a necessary move."

Director and Rosemont Mayor Bradley Stephens said he had no comment.

Tollway officials have repeatedly stressed the agency has acted ethically.

"The tollway is a well-run, transparent organization, but we can always look for better ways and better practices," Schillerstrom said at a November meeting.

The bill is being handled in the lame-duck session to expedite the leadership change. Typically, it takes several months for new legislation to pass through the committee process.

A new legislature will be seated on Wednesday.

"It's unprecedented, but it's a step toward good government," said Bill Morris of Grayslake, a former state senator and former tollway director.

Five tollway board members have terms ending in May. Each of the nine board directors was either appointed or reappointed by departing GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner. The board is required to have a mix of Republicans and Democrats.

Tollway awards $157M contract despite conflict of interest concerns

Politically connected tollway employee's last job? Selling office furniture in 2001

Tollway says politically-connected PR firm was hired on merits

Who's on contractor selection committee? Tollway won't say

Tollway releases secret committee minutes

Tollway promises new transparency policies amid meeting blowup

Tollway self-examination finds no major flaws

GOP insiders get big jobs at tollway

Tollway reform rollout takes back seat to political firing brouhaha

Are bylaw changes weakening the tollway board, and still keeping them ethical?

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker has confirmed his plans to bring in new leadership at the Illinois tollway.
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