Illinois House votes to remove tollway board directors amid concerns of 'unethical behavior'

How far will changes at the beleaguered Illinois tollway go and how will that affect day-to-day operations?

Illinois House lawmakers voted 100-6 Tuesday to end the terms of nine tollway directors appointed by departing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner after concerns about "unethical behavior." The state Senate is expected to vote Wednesday, and the tollway directors could be sent packing shortly after Democratic Gov.-elect Pritzker takes office Monday.

The agency can continue to run normally without a board in the short term, one expert said.

"The tollway will be fine - at this time of year they're working on long-term planning for the construction season and there's enough backlog to make sure everyone focuses on the mission of the tollway," former Executive Director Greg Bedalov said.

It's likely another change is coming in the top spot now held by Executive Director Elizabeth Gorman, political observers believe. New governors typically put their own footprint on tollway leadership even without controversies.

The unprecedented legislation "sends a clear message we want some changes," said Democratic state Rep. Marty Moylan of Des Plaines, who predicted a shake-up at the executive director level.

An automatic response on Gorman's email said she was out of the office from Dec. 31 to Jan. 14 and couldn't be reached for comment.

In backing Senate Bill 1298, Pritzker said the tollway needs a "fresh start" to ensure construction contracts aren't awarded to "political insiders."

Tollway officials have said the agency has scrupulously followed all laws and enacted changes in late 2018 to increase accountability.

"The tollway board serves at the pleasure of the governor," Director Neli Vazquez Rowland of Bartlett said. She added she was "honored and humbled" to serve on the tollway and would support Pritzker and his administration, if given the chance.

With leadership in flux, the tollway canceled all committee meetings scheduled for this month.

The agency has been under scrutiny after an investigation by the Daily Herald that found potential political favoritism involving hiring and contracts.

That includes hiring Illinois 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.

Durkin, of Western Springs, voted for the legislation.

Other concerns were appointing a tollway director and a former House Republican policy chief to serve on a powerful selection committee that recommends professional contracts, and removing key passages from the tollway bylaws on conflict of interest and the board's power to overturn a chairman's veto.

Lawmakers who voted "no" on the bill included suburban Republican Reps. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton, Sheri Jesiel of Winthrop Harbor, Allen Skillicorn of East Dundee and Helene Miller Walsh from the Mundelein area. All but Skillicorn leave office when a new legislature is sworn in Wednesday.

Ives has criticized the tollway for excessive spending and potential nepotism including expenditures on public relations. She opposed the bill because "it's a craven political move (by Democrats) and it's unnecessary." Ives said it was more prudent to wait until five board members' terms expire in May to replace them.

But "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 Abudayyeh said.

The legislation would give Pritzker until Feb. 28 to appoint replacements. The incoming governor is expected to sign the legislation after his Jan. 14 inauguration.

Bedalov noted that if vacancies on the board persist after 60 days it could raise problems in terms of financial and scheduling issues.

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