Editorial: Tollway hiring seems to belie understanding of agency's history
We find ourselves asking two questions as we reflect on the news that Illinois Tollway Executive Director Jose Alvarez has hired nine executives from the Chicago Housing Authority for positions in an organization under a mandate to dispel an image of putting nepotism and favoritism ahead of the public interest.
One, is the Chicago Housing Authority the state's poster child for exemplary management?
And, two, does Alvarez understand -- or care about -- the full scope of the governing challenge confronting his agency?
The tollway's response to concerns about the optics of putting $1.3 million in annual salaries -- many of them for newly created positions -- in Alvarez' management makeover is that the executives represent a diverse range of experiences. Six of them were hired for the procurement department because of their specific background in that area and are committed, a spokesman said, to being part of a "new comprehensive contract compliance department to ensure the tollway and everyone we do business with is meeting the highest ethical standards,"
Alvarez himself has said that he hired executives who understand his management style and have worked successfully with him.
These are not unreasonable responses. But the all-too-familiar history of hiring and contract irregularities at the tollway places a heavy burden on all these new hires to prove that we are not being expected just to "meet the new boss, same as the old boss," as the song says.
In a story Monday by our transportation and projects writer Marni Pyke Monday, Barrington Republican state Rep. David McSweeney said the tollway hiring is "starting to get really strange." Des Plaines Democratic state Sen. Laura Murphy found it "troubling" and said she wants "a full and complete explanation."
That explanation must surely entail describing what is so exemplary about the procurement experience at CHA that it ought to be transferred nearly wholesale to the tollway. And it ought additionally include some indication that the CHA hires were the product of a broad search that included a range of additional candidates.
"The old patronage system needs to die ... finally and completely," Gov. J.B. Pritzker promised in his state of the State address two weeks ago. He cited a government infrastructure that has "withered from neglect and a lack of public trust."
So far, the hiring situation at the top of the tollway transition leaves much open to question whether Alvarez truly understands the past he is expected to bury and the future he is expected to create. We hope he can produce answers that demonstrate he does. The all-new tollway board should demand them or lawmakers begin looking for new ways to conduct tollway hiring.