Pritzker expected to roll out new tollway leaders this week

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is expected to announce a new slate of Illinois tollway board directors this week, making a clean sweep at the turbulent agency.

The General Assembly in January approved an unprecedented bill ending the terms of all nine board members, which sets Thursday as the deadline to pick replacements. Pritzker has not signed the bill yet but supported it amid concerns about politically motivated hiring and contracts at the agency.

"These reforms will build transparency and accountability at the Illinois tollway," Pritzker said last month.

Names surfacing as likely directors include former Grayslake mayor and Lake County Board member Pat Carey and International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 President James Sweeney, a former tollway director. Carey confirmed she'd been approached.

Pritzker's office has not confirmed any names or when the announcement will occur, although it's expected on Thursday. The tollway canceled committee and board meetings set for Feb. 21 and Wednesday.

The changes followed a July Senate hearing into tollway procurement irregularities sparked by a series of Daily Herald reports on potential patronage at the agency.

The governor selects tollway board directors; the most recent board was appointed by former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner with some terms that had been set to expire in May. Typically, a new governor brings in a team that reflects his or her priorities but the directors finish out their terms, which is why the General Assembly's actions were so momentous.

The Daily Herald reported about the tollway board awarding a $157 million contract to a company that employed the tollway chairman's daughter and the son of the chief engineer, recruiting GOP insiders for high-paying positions, approving a $6 million contract with a politically connected PR firm, spending thousands of dollars to send staff members to banquets where tollway leaders were speakers, and more.

Tollway officials said the agency operates ethically and follows state law.

Tollway Executive Director Elizabeth Gorman is still at the agency but usually an incoming governor will nudge the board to hire a successor.

Former tollway Chairman Robert Schillerstrom resigned Jan. 30.

"I am certain every tollway board (member) approached their work with one goal and that was to leave the agency in an improved position," Schillerstrom wrote Pritzker. "I believe we have done just that. The Illinois tollway is one of the most highly regarded networks of roads in the nation."

But in July before his election, Pritzker said this of the tollway to the Daily Herald: "We've got to make sure we get that kind of corruption out of government. We need to make sure that those kinds of self-dealing and machine politics get rooted out of state government."

The tollway has nine directors plus the Illinois Department of Transportation secretary and governor as ex officio members. Directors are paid about $31,426 a year and the chairman receives $36,077.

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Union official James Sweeney is expected to be named to the Illinois tollway board this week. Sweeney of Chicago previously served on the tollway from 2011 to 2017. Daily Herald File Photo
J.B. Pritzker
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