Editorial: 'Inadvertent' vote contradicts message expected from new tollway board

This was not an auspicious beginning for the newly "fumigated" Illinois Tollway board of directors and its new chairman.

Any way you look at it, Chairman Will Evans' "inadvertent" vote on a contract involving a company with which he'd had a relationship less than two months earlier is worrisome. Either he is making an excuse after getting caught or he didn't do enough due diligence to know that the company was involved in the vote or he didn't realize the appearance of a conflict of interest that his vote would create. None of those alternatives inspires great confidence in his leadership.

Evans was chief diversity officer for HBK Engineering LLC, a position he says he held as an independent contractor. He resigned from the post on Feb. 27 and was named tollway chairman the next day. Seven weeks later he voted to approve a tollway contract for which HBK Engineering was a subcontractor.

Susan Garrett, a former Democratic state senator who now heads the government watchdog group Center for Illinois Politics, was troubled by Evans' mere appointment.

"The quick flip from contractor to approver of contracts is troubling in and of itself," she told our transportation and projects writer Marni Pyke.

And she added a thought suggesting she's skeptical that the chairman's vote was some sort of accident.

"It certainly appears that, based on the 24-hour turnaround between Will Evans' resignation from HBK Engineering and his immediate appointment as chair of the tollway, that he very likely was aware of the multimillion-dollar contract before joining the tollway," she said.

Evans pointed out that he resigned from the HBK position to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. The tollway board has scheduled a new vote on the contract from which Evans will recuse himself, and officials offered assurances he will recuse himself from all future votes involving the company.

These are reasonable responses, of course. And, it's important to acknowledge that in its first meeting in March, some of the newly reconstituted tollway board's first actions involved tightening bylaws on conflicts of interest and its own independence.

But it's just as important to emphasize that a great responsibility has been placed on this board. The previous board was entirely removed by the state Senate after months of Daily Herald reports describing questionable hiring and contracts, and the tollway has long held a reputation for patronage and insider dealing. This panel, entirely installed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in February, is supposed to change all that.

It's expected to change all that.

Chairman Evans' "inadvertent" mistake in the first two months of the board's tenure was an unfortunate start toward that mission. Let's hope that whatever caused it, this situation reinforces for him and the entire board the profound message it needs to send.

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