'Troubling' power struggle at tollway leaves some senators contemplating legislative fix

  • A state Senate Transportation Committee put a tollway reorganization under the microscope Tuesday.

    A state Senate Transportation Committee put a tollway reorganization under the microscope Tuesday. Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Updated 12/7/2021 8:27 PM

Illinois tollway Chairman Will Evans' assertion during a Senate hearing Tuesday that he's the top dog at the agency has some lawmakers wondering if that aligns with state law and where it leaves Executive Director José Alvarez.

The Senate's Transportation Committee called the session to review a board vote Oct. 21 delegating authority to Evans to reorganize departments and administrators' duties.

 

The executive director is paid more than $220,000 a year to run the day-to-day operations of the agency, but Evans made the chief financial officer report to him as well as Alvarez. Evans also shifted the procurement department from Alvarez to the CFO and fired two of Alvarez's top executives, giving rise to concerns about a power struggle.

As chairman, "my responsibility is to have general supervision over all power, duties, obligations and functions of the authority," Evans testified, referring to the Tollway Highway Act.

He also said tollway bylaws state the chairman shall be the chief executive officer, allowing him to combine both roles. Such combinations aren't that unusual in corporate America, Evans said, referencing his credentials as a former president of People's Gas.

Democratic Sen. Celina Villanueva of Chicago disagreed. She said the situation "has left some of us scratching our heads to understand exactly what happened."

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Transportation Committee Chairman Sen. Ram Villivalam, a Chicago Democrat, questioned how Evans could conduct oversight of an agency that he was simultaneously running.

"So you don't think there's any kind of conflict being on the governance side and on the operations side?" Villivalam asked.

"No," Evans said. "I have to do it. I'm obligated to do it."

"It's very troubling," Democratic state Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines said after the session. "That's why we're going to continue to hold hearings ... to ensure if we have to enact legislative oversight over the tollway that it really fixes the problem."

Republican Sen. Don DeWitte of St. Charles said the board's resolution empowering Evans "is contrary to language contained in the tollway act and perhaps this process should have come back to the legislature for permission and authority to do what you have done."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Evans said the new tollway administration, selected by Gov. J.B. Pritzker after predecessors were removed during a patronage scandal, had to hit the ground running. "We were drinking out of a fire hose," he said.

Absent from the hearing was Alvarez.

Gretchen Winter, executive director of the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also testified about best practices.

"It important that there be an oversight structure to avoid creating conflicts of interest between the chairman of the board and the CEO who is typically the day-to-day manager," she said.

DeWitte asked, "Has the executive director position to all intents and purposes been neutered?"

Looking at the organizational chart, the CEO "apparently has a lot less day-to-day responsibility," Winter said.

Members of the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus wrote Gov. J.B. Pritzker in November, saying, "It is highly unusual for a board chair to have a direct reporting structure that takes leadership responsibilities away from the executive director."

Alvarez, they wrote, "is one of the few Latinos leading a state agency under your administration. We are rightly concerned that he is being treated unfairly in this situation."

Asked about the strife, Pritzker said: "We've been in communication certainly with the tollway, but it's important to note that any organization has disagreements, sometimes internally, as they're doing their job. And I think the tollway is doing their job, they're building our toll roads, doing them on time and on budget."

The agency has also been cognizant of equity and awarded numerous contracts to firms run by minorities, Pritzker said.

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