Editorial: At last, legislation to address tollway contracts
After the Daily Herald reported last fall that the Illinois Tollway had hired for a major contract an engineering company that employs the tollway chairman's daughter and relatives of other tollway employees, we called for competitive bidding in such contracts.
When in January, we reported that a relative of the state House minority leader had been hired for a well-paid engineering position without public release of her qualifications, we again called for more transparency from the tollway.
When only a few months later, the tollway again used a no-bid vetting process to hire a communications company headed by the wife of a Republican state representative, we asked again why the law is not more concerned about the appearances, if not the reality, of favoritism in government hiring.
In these and other such cases, we weren't quibbling with the qualifications -- or lack of them -- of the individuals and companies hired. Our greater concern was with the cloudy process by which the hiring was done. It may be, as defenders of the status quo insisted, that the contract and job winners were the best qualified; but, it couldn't help but raise suspicions when the public didn't know the political and family connections until after the hiring was complete, facts disclosed only after our Marni Pyke asked specific, pointed questions.
And when such suspicions surface, they can't help but contribute to an erosion of the public's confidence in the agencies and offices ostensibly created to serve its interests.
Now, finally, legislation is surfacing that recognizes this. A proposed new law introduced by Arlington Heights Republican Rep. David Harris doesn't go so far as to require open bidding on tollway projects, but it does at least recognize a need for more transparency throughout the hiring process.
"If there's even a potential conflict of interest -- that should be known before a contract is voted on," Harris said.
We agree. At best, the implication of clouted hiring is that government did not give equal consideration to all potential contractors. At worst, clouted hiring can lead to employing companies or individuals who can't do the job or who would do it badly. Ultimately, the public's interests are harmed in both situations.
Harris's legislation and similar ideas being promoted by Democratic Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines address these dangers.
The standard for transparency in government hiring -- at the tollway or any other agency -- should not be "we'll take a chance that no one will notice, but if they do, insist that we still hired the most qualified contractor." It should be, "we know this contractor has connections, but its technical qualifications are such that we should still consider it." That simple shift in thinking would force a more responsible approach to decision making, and the openness would give second thoughts for anyone who might want to clout a friend or family member into a tollway job.
It may still be that deeper process changes are needed in the tollway's contracting practices, but the ideas proposed by Harris, Murphy and others are important steps toward ensuring a fairer system of contracting that everyone in the state can have faith in.