New board takes over at Illinois tollway, tightens ethics rules

New Illinois tollway directors tightened bylaws on conflicts of interest and the board's independence at their first meeting Thursday.

The tollway authority hadn't held a board meeting since December in the wake of the January ouster of nine directors by lawmakers and Gov. J.B. Pritzker after concerns about cronyism in hiring and contracts.

Pritzker appointed replacements Feb. 28 including Chairman Will Evans of Skokie, an engineer and retired chairman of People's Gas.

"It's a tremendous honor and responsibility to serve on the tollway," said Evans, who noted he frequently drives on I-355 and other toll roads to visit his mother in Bolingbrook, among other trips.

The shake-up at the tollway followed a series by the Daily Herald on potential patronage that led to a Senate hearing and a law ending the former board's terms. The reports included the tollway board's awarding a $157 million contract to a company that employed the adult children of executives, recruiting GOP insiders for high-paying positions, and approving a $6 million contract with a politically connected PR firm.

On March 4 Pritzker told the Daily Herald Editorial Board, "The big change that I have been seeking (at the tollway) is to make sure there's transparency, to make sure we no longer have these incidents of nepotism.

"I've specifically spoken with the new board members directly to make sure that they raise any issues that they might have ... so that we no longer have these incidents that have occurred of contracts going to people who probably shouldn't have gotten them, or who may have gotten them in part because they were related to someone."

The Daily Herald also wrote about bylaw revisions in 2018 that removed language about the board's power to override a chairman's veto and told directors to avoid "potential" conflicts of interest.

Directors Thursday updated the bylaws to affirm the board's override authority and toughened rules to prevent potential conflicts of interest.

After the two-month hiatus, more than $147 million in engineering and construction contracts awaited board approval as roadwork season looms.

Asked about the controversial extension of Route 53 north into Lake County, which the agency is studying for $25 million, and a move to require the tollway to adopt I-80, Evans deferred comment.

"I'm still getting my feet on the ground," he said. "Our job is governance over the tollway and to watch over its culture and its integrity."

Evans said he was excited about projects such as widening the Mile Long Bridge on the Central Tri-State and western access to O'Hare International Airport with the construction of I-490.

"Chicago is the transportation hub of the nation. We will continue to look at ways to improve the tollway," he said.

The other board directors hail from Wheaton, Geneva, Chicago, Berwyn, Shorewood, Palos Park, Orland Park and Western Springs.

Two Democratic state senators are sponsoring a bill to increase regional diversity on the board. Sens. Melinda Bush of Grayslake and Steve Stadelman of Rockford want the governor to appoint a tollway director from Lake County and a second from either McHenry, Winnebago or Boone counties.

Asked about regional voices on the board, Pritzker said March 4 that "we want to make sure we have the best people we could find. The most important thing right now is that everything is done in a way we all should be proud of."

The board Thursday also changed the bylaws to create an independent committee composed of the tollway's inspector general, general counsel and internal audit chief to review actual or potential conflicts and take action when needed.

Typically when governors take office, they appoint new tollway directors after incumbents' terms expire or let some remain. Replacing an entire board was unprecedented.

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Tollway says politically-connected PR firm was hired on merits

GOP insiders get big jobs at tollway

'Time to fumigate the board': Senate votes to sweep out tollway board

Pritzker expected to roll out new tollway leaders this week

  Chairman Will Evans, second from left, and staff members at the Illinois tollway begin an inaugural board meeting Thursday in Downers Grove. Bev Horne/
  Will Evans of Skokie presides at his first Illinois tollway board meeting as chairman Thursday in Downers Grove. Bev Horne/
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