Tollway Chairman slams board members’ bullying
The Chairman of the Illinois Tollway Authority released copies of a letter and memos critical of Tollway board member Joseph “Joe” Gomez who has been accused of bullying and using inappropriate language in addressing Tollway employees. Gomez denies the claims but the letters offer specific details about incidents and events surrounding the $31,000-a-year board member’s conduct
By Ray Hanania
The worst thing a public servant can do is feed allegations to the news media to embarrass his agency because someone at the agency lost his job. That’s what seems to be happening at the $1.4 billion Illinois Tollway Authority which oversees state roads.
Board member Joe Gomez is under siege, in part because he’s clearly angry the Tollway dismissed a friend. Suddenly, narrowly focused stories critical of the Tollway’s hiring started to appear in a local newspaper.
Wow, a government agency hires relatives of government officials? Unheard of! Not really. It happens all the time at every level in every government, and it also happens in the media and private industry, too. People hire qualified people they can trust.
When Gomez left an April 26 board meeting to speak with a sympathetic reporter at the Arlington Heights Daily Herald in the hallway, a Tollway’s communications employee followed — it’s his job, not Gomez’s, to speak to the media.
That’s when Gomez allegedly went off the hinge, screaming and yelling at the Tollway employee, according to officials. The Daily Herald twisted the story, alleging it was Gomez who was being “bullied.” Mud-slinging against the Tollway reached a crescendo at the Herald last month, prompting a response.
In letters and memos released by Illinois Tollway Authority Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom this week, that were originally FOIA’d by the Chicago Tribune, Gomez is said to have engaged in “verbal abuse” and “harassment” towards employees and staff.
Schillerstrom, who is highly regarded, said Gomez directed profanity at a Tollway communications employee who followed him out of the board meeting. Gomez allegedly “ordered” the employee, Daniel Rozek, to leave the hallway as Gomez and the Daily Herald reporter spoke.
Gomez has also shown hostility towards the Tollway’s new executive director, Liz Gorman, who is one of the region’s most taxpayer-attentive state public servants. Gomez attacked her publicly but claimed he’s the victim and has never spoked with her since he voted to hire her and give her a raise.
“As Chairman of the Toll Highway Authority, it is my obligation to take steps to ensure that all Directors comport themselves in a professional manner at all times and with all individuals, particularly Tollway employees,” Schillerstrom wrote in a letter to Gomez on May 22, 2018 released by the Tollway Authority on August 15, 2018.
“I have become aware of two separate instances where your conduct with two senior Tollway staff members, as reported, could be deemed verbal abuse or harassment, as that conduct is described in the provisions of the Tollway Policies and Procedures Manual.”
Schillerstrom mentioned a second incident in which Gomez made calls to another staff member and to Gorman that he described as “threatening in nature.” Gorman told the media last month Gomez had “a history of erratic behavior, violent outbursts and threats to tollway staff.” Schillerstrom said the conduct was “in direct contravention” of Tollway policies.
Gorman is a very popular former public servant who championed taxpayer rights while a Cook County Commissioner. She singlehandedly blocked Todd Stroger’s one-cent sales tax hike. Gorman, the synonym of “good government,” is exactly what the Tollway needs.
In a May 22 Memo, Schillerstrom reminded all board members to observe courtesy in their positions and avoid “general harassment” or “verbal or physical conduct that rises above the level of a personality conflict that denigrates or show hostility or aversion” that creates an “intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.” He said board member should not interfere with any individual’s work performance.
These issues are not easy to resolve. While Rauner appoints, the Illinois Senate confirms board members. It is unheard of for a state board appointee to be forcibly removed.
Gorman has said she feels “threatened” by Gomez, who denied the claims saying he never met her, but he doesn’t hesitate to criticize her more.
Gomez denied abuse claims, acknowledged a friendship with the Daily Herald reporter and expressed anger over the employee’s dismissal. I met Gomez years ago when he advocated giving contracts and jobs to Hispanic firms. He reminded me of that “friendship” but declined to go on the record.
But that doesn’t give Gomez the right to attack Gorman or turn board matters into a personal agenda. If Gomez leaked info to the Daily Herald to embarrass the Tollway and can’t find another way to address public issues without yelling at others, that’s a disservice to taxpayers and he should quit.
(Ray Hanania is an award-winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and political columnist. Reach him on his website at www.Hanania.com or email him at email@example.com. This column was originally published in the Southwest News Newspaper Group including in The Regional News, The Reporter Newspapers, The Des Plaines Valley News and the Southwest News-Herald.)