Tollway boss brings in five former colleagues, at $893,000 a year

It's one thing for new CEOs to bring in their own teams. But recruiting five former co-workers for top positions at the Illinois tollway and paying them nearly $900,000 a year, collectively?

"It seems excessive," said Republican state Rep. David McSweeney, a budget hawk.

Since the summer, tollway Executive Director José Alvarez, the former chief operating officer at the Chicago Housing Authority, has hired five former colleagues for two existing and three newly created positions.

Alvarez said Thursday the new employees are top-notch and dovetail with his management of the agency.

"They understand and agree with my leadership style. And I trust them not just as individuals; I trust them to do the right thing for the tollway," he said.

But some officials question whether the tollway is pushing the envelope.

"I, too, have noticed some interesting hiring practices," said Democratic Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines, who prompted a hearing on tollway procurement policies in 2018.

"We are in the process of coordinating a meeting so I can talk to the tollway. I look forward to hearing their explanation and reviewing the (hiring) process they use," Murphy said.

Recently, CHA Chief Human Resources Officer Kimberly Ross joined the tollway as its new chief administrative officer at an annual salary of $186,000. Ross was the housing authority's human resources director from 2016 to 2017, and she previously worked as human resources chief at City Colleges of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools.

"She has a wealth of human resources experience," Alvarez said.

The last permanent tollway chief of administration was paid $145,900 in 2017; Ross earned $185,000 at the housing authority.

"While all of these hires may be well-qualified, you wonder what kind of search they did to end up with all from the same place," said former Democratic state Sen. Bill Morris of Grayslake, a tollway director from 2009 to 2011.

The answer is - none. Alvarez said he hand-picked colleagues with a proven track record. In fact, the team is overqualified, he contended.

McSweeney said he "would prefer it if people with business experience from outside government were hired for at least a few of these jobs."

"We need to bring new ideas on how to more efficiently manage the tollway. The total compensation for five people seems excessive," the legislator from Barrington Hills said.

Recently hired executive staff members at the Illinois tollway, based in Downers Grove, include a contingent from the Chicago Housing Authority. Daily Herald File Photo

The tollway has a history of patronage involving personally or politically connected people and companies. Early this year, lawmakers ousted the former board of directors after the Daily Herald reported on nepotism in hiring and contracts and Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed replacements.

With that in mind, Alvarez has said he wants an exemplary procurement department and created three new positions this summer: chief procurement and compliance officer, chief of contract services and chief of compliance. He hired three Chicago Housing Authority executives with "knowledge and expertise" for those positions who are paid a collective $512,000 a year.

Alvarez also brought on as chief of operations Derek Messier, a former executive for the housing authority and a "recognized leader" in capital development, officials said. He is being paid $195,000 a year; his predecessor made $169,600.

The five executives are being paid a collective $893,000 a year.

"I've got the most highly qualified and capable people for the job that are committed to our mission," Alvarez said. He said his team is not political, and given that most drive every day from Chicago to the Downers Grove tollway headquarters, they're not doing it for their convenience. "It's about doing the work."

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<h3 class="leadin">You should know

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Tuesday's the day

Metra will hold a Toys for Tots drive Tuesday. The railroad and the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Foundation will be collecting new and unwrapped gifts for children at all downtown stations from 6 to 9 a.m. during the morning rush and from 3 to 6 p.m. during the evening rush.

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