Editorial: Wavering confidence that new tollway leaders appreciate their special duty

When he announced his appointments for a new Illinois Tollway Board of Directors last February, Gov. J.B. Pritzker promised "a new day" for the agency that would usher in "a new wave of transparency and accountability."

Less than 10 months later, this "new day" hasn't exactly dawned bright with promise.

First, shortly after taking office, the tollway board's new chairman, Will Evans, had to apologize for what he called an "inadvertent" vote in favor of a tollway contract with one of his former clients. Then, in October, board member Cesar Santoy resigned at the governor's request after his name appeared on documents seized in the federal investigation of state Sen. Martin Sandoval.

Now comes a report from the Daily Herald's transportation and projects writer Marni Pyke showing that new Executive Director José Alvarez has hired five former co-workers for top administrative jobs at salaries totaling nearly $900,000. Apparently, what set these five apart for Alvarez from others who might be well qualified is that he trusts them "to do the right thing" and they "understand and agree with my leadership style."

As a demonstration of the strength of their commitment, he points to the apparently onerous 25-mile commute some of them must make from Chicago to Downers Grove.

This is no way to build confidence in this "new day" at the tollway. Indeed, it sounds agonizingly similar to the platitudes and apologetics common to the old day.

The practices of the previous tollway leadership present the new board and administration with a special duty to demonstrate the highest standards of ethical operations. Alvarez points to three positions he created to monitor contracts, and to be sure, there's much to be said for improving that oversight. But filling those jobs and other top positions with former colleagues and no visible signs of competitive review or analysis sends a disappointing - nay, discouraging - signal about the leadership's understanding and commitment of the responsibilities it faces.

State Sen. Laura Murphy, a Des Plaines Democrat who oversaw a 2018 hearing on the previous tollway board's practices, said she's found some of the new tollway administration's hiring "interesting." She said she looks forward "to hearing their explanation and reviewing the (hiring) process they use."

We do, too. As should the governor.

He invested a great deal of his personal reputation in the overhaul of the tollway board. So far, the new leaders he put in place have done much to invite questions of whether they are up to the task he called them to do.

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