Editorial: Senate wise to begin looking into management questions at the tollway

"What's going on at the tollway?" seems to be a perennial concern in Illinois politics. Perhaps a Senate hearing scheduled for Dec. 7 will help provide some new insights into management of the agency.

It was natural to hope in 2019 that a sweeping shakeup of the tollway Board of Directors following years of questionable spending and contracts would produce a settling of affairs at the agency. But we have not exactly seen anything like what one might call "a new era" in tollway management.

Although the then-new board quickly went to work revising the tollway's ethics rules, things got off to a rocky start when it was discovered that freshly appointed Chairman Will Evans voted on a proposed contract involving a previous employer. Evans called the lapse an "inadvertent" mistake and promised to do better in the future.

Certainly, no similar controversies have erupted as his tenure continued, but there have been opportunities to question leadership at the tollway. The most recent, and the one prompting the Dec. 7 hearing, is an Oct. 21 management directive in which the tollway board gave Evans authority to reorganize the agency's leadership structure. Evans promptly brought the chief financial officer directly under his wing, instead of reporting solely to Executive Director Jose Alvarez, and he shifted supervision of two key offices from Alvarez to the CFO.

The moves stirred some lawmakers - like Democratic Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines and Republican Sen. Don DeWitte of St. Charles - to wonder whether all leaders at the tollway are, in DeWitte's words, "on the same page as to how they conduct their business."

It is at least somewhat reassuring that lawmakers are training such a high level of interest on tollway management now rather than waiting to respond to the kinds of scandals that led to the shakeup two years ago. Evans' early misstep and Alvarez' early actions to create executive-level positions and hire former associates to fill them lead naturally to the kinds of questions that seem constantly to dog tollway management.

Board members and tollway officials acted quickly to insist that the latest moves do not necessarily indicate a power struggle or shortcomings of leadership that would disrupt operations or plans. Instead, they would have us believe they are merely, as spokesman Dan Rozek described them, steps toward "continual improvement of governance and internal controls."

Let's hope so. To be sure, even if the Evans and Alvarez actions of the past two years had proceeded without hint of suspicion, improving internal controls and "governance" are ongoing and legitimate goals at the Illinois Tollway. But we will watch with interest to see the details of how it is progressing when leaders appear before a Senate oversight committee next month.

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