Tollway reform rollout takes back seat to political firing brouhaha

 
 
Updated 11/29/2018 7:22 PM
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  • Friction erupted at a Thursday Illinois tollway meeting where ethics reforms were approved.

    Friction erupted at a Thursday Illinois tollway meeting where ethics reforms were approved. Daily Herald File Photo

Controversy erupted at the Illinois tollway Thursday as Executive Director Liz Gorman pushed back against allegations of politically motivated "firings" and said one administrator's exit was a cause of celebration.

The blowup coincided with the agency's rollout of new ethics procedures prepared in response to concerns about potential favoritism regarding contracts and hiring.

"The tollway is a well-run, transparent organization, but we can always look for better ways and better practices," Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said.

However, Director Joseph Gomez criticized the ethics report for failing to address "what might be considered political firings."

Gomez said high-ranking managers in communications and human resources were terminated this year and told "the toll road was headed in a different direction."

"I don't find that a good reason to fire senior members of the toll road staff," Gomez said. "What was the 'new direction' at the tollway?"

Gorman told Gomez, "If you're inferring that I'm a woman and can't handle it, I don't appreciate it and that's not the case."

"I don't believe in firing people. They fire themselves," she said. And when one department head left this spring, "I believe the building was in (unison) in singing, 'Ding, dong, the witch is dead,'" Gorman said.

At that point, Senior Assistant Attorney General Robert Lane admonished Gorman and board members that personnel discussions should occur in executive session.

"I am so sorry you would think that anybody is disparaging you because of being a female," Gomez told Gorman.

"There are no political firings," Schillerstrom clarified, adding personnel issues are handled by tollway executives, not board members.

The two former top administrators who were the subject of Thursday's brouhaha were replaced by two employees with Republican connections.

The ethics changes followed a state Senate hearing in July on tollway procurement and hiring that followed Daily Herald reports on potential politically connected hiring and contracts.

Activities under scrutiny included: hiring House Republican Leader Jim Durkin's sister-in-law as engineering manager, although her background is in furniture sales; using a PR firm whose CEO is the wife of a Republican lawmaker on a $6.6 million contract; and selecting an engineering firm that employs the grown children of tollway executives, including Schillerstrom, for a $157 million contract.

The tollway board is appointed by the governor.

Changes approved by the board include:

• Publicizing names of selection committee members who recommend professional firms like engineers, and prohibiting board directors from serving on selection committees.

• Publicizing conflict-of-interest forms from contractors and subcontractors.

• Tightening job descriptions and creating an employee conflict-of-interest questionnaire.

• Creating a conflict-of-interest committee.

• Requiring board members to disclose any conflicts of interest.

Friction on the tollway board isn't new. On Thursday and in July, Gorman accused Gomez of making threatening remarks. Gomez called the allegations false and said he'd met only Gorman once in person when another employee was present.

Schillerstrom called it "highly inappropriate" Gomez brought up personnel matters in public and said his previous behavior "unfortunately escalated a situation that should not have taken place. I've talked to Director Gorman and she regrets the exchange," he stated.

Gomez said, "My job as a board member is to ... hold the tollway accountable."

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