Illinois Tollway unveils unprecedented reform agenda

Illinois Tollway unveils unprecedented reform agenda

Illinois Tollway unveils unprecedented reform agenda

The Illinois Tollway Authority, a $1.4 billion government state agency, unveiled an unprecedented reform program to even the playing field and to brighten sunshine on the authority’s business actions. But instead of focusing on the news, the Arlington Heights Daily Herald and even Crains Chicago Business (are they even still important?) are focusing on the selfish personal war being waged by one of their friends on the ITA board.

By Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania

Opinion columnist راى حنانيا.
Ray Hanania

It’s very rare that a major government agency reforms itself with changes that open the doors to decision making and contract procedures, but that is exactly what the Illinois Tollway Authority has done this week.

The agency, which has a budget of $1.4 billion, has hired and fired under murky terms and cloaks in the past but since naming Liz Gorman, the former Cook County Board taxpayer champion last March, the ITA is taking a new, more open agenda.

That has rankled some of the board like ITA Trustee Joseph Gomez, the senior officer at Byline Bank who has been coordinating attacks against Gorman with a political writer at the Arlington Heights Daily Herald. Gomez is angry because one of his closet friends was dismissed by Gorman and he’s suddenly concerned about “political hiring.”

This week the Tollway board unveiled the unprecedented good government procedures. Instead of covering the rollout, the Daily Herald showcased more Gomez and his attacks against Gorman. Gomez has been censored by the Board for his past conduct, which is described in board documents and memos as having engaged in “verbal abuse” and “harassment” towards employees and staff.

Illinois Tollway roadway courtesy of the Illinois Tollway Authority

Illinois Tollway roadway courtesy of the Illinois Tollway Authority

Despite the orchestrated obstructionism by the Daily Herald, the Illinois Tollway Authority board unveiled the draft plan urging the members and public to review and provide feedback. The Daily Herald actually patted itself on the back asserting that its one-sided attacks against Gorman and Schillerstrom were, incredulously, the impetus for the plan. It’s not true, but neither is much that the Daily Herald has been writing about the Tollway these days.

Schillerstrom told the board at the meeting Thursday, Nov. 29, that the Tollway is “a well-run, transparent organization” but that nothing is preventing the board and the new executive director from “always look for better ways and better practices” to improve services to the state’s taxpayers.

“We’re recommending 19 changes to increase transparency and strengthen our operations. These include enhancements to our hiring process and conflict of interest policies, as well as recommended changes to both our QBS procurement process and selection committees,” Schillerstrom explained.

The report recommends changes in three areas, procurement, limiting “conflicts,” and hiring.

Schillerstrom showcased several of the key aspects of the changes, most notably:

• Clarify Chief Procurement Officer oversight over Quality Based Selection procurements
• Strengthen conflict of interest disclosures and enhance transparency safeguards
• Enhance the Tollway’s ability to deliver roads through alternate delivery methods that combine elements of both QBS and low-bid
• Enhance conflict of interest clarification and notification for Board members
• Identify conflicts and strengthen the Tollway hiring process for exempt employees

The new regulations were spelled out in detail and include “sunshine” procedures that protect taxpayers and the integrity of the Tollway’s commitment to public service.

The reforms were roundly applauded by everyone in the transportation industry, except for the Daily Herald’s transportation writer Marni Pyke who instead continued to advocate her personal crusade for her friend, Joe Gomez, a senior vice president at Byline Bank and ITA board member.

Gomez has been criticized by the board for his conduct in letters and memos documenting his abuses of other board members and staff. The letters and memo were issued in May 2018 by Schillerstrom. They were later released after they were FOIA’d by the Chicago Tribune. Gomez is said in the documents to have engaged in “verbal abuse” and “harassment” towards employees and staff.

But not even Pyke’s continued opinionated “news reports” could derail the Tollway’s reforms.

“This is a comprehensive and informative report creating a solid roadmap towards strengthening the Illinois Tollway’s operations and accountability,” said Illinois Senator Martin Sandoval who chairs the state’s transportation committee.

“Chairman Schillerstrom should be commended for bringing these complex issues into a public forum and addressing potential issues in a transparent and proactive manner.”

John Njord, former Utah Department of Transportation Secretary said, “I would say the rest of the country could probably learn something from what you’re doing here.”

Gorman explained, “Some of these recommendations can be accomplished through our own internal Standard Operating Procedures, and others will require legislative or full board approval.”

In anticipation of approval, Gorman said, the ITA is asking staff to develop a plan for implementation of these recommendations and present those recommendations to the board at its January meeting.

Here are the detailed changes proposed in the reform plan unveiled by Schillerstrom, Gorman and the board that you won’t be able to find in either the Daily Herald or Crains Chicago Business:

Procurement recommendations:

• Disclose QBS Selection Committee members after the close of a procurement
• Make available contractor and subcontractor conflict of interest disclosure forms
• Procurement letter to State Purchasing Officer (SPO)/Chief Procurement Officer (CPO) requesting reinstatement of oversight on QBS process
• Identify selection committee members in Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) by title or position
• Disallow board members from serving on selection committees within International Standards Organization (ISO) procedure
• Draft legislation to incorporate more alternative design and delivery methods
• Enhance staff conflict of interest procedure for upcoming Professional Services Bulletins (PSB’s), disallow staff with conflicts from serving on QBS selection committees
• Maintain selection results database and provide a summary of prior consultant evaluations
• Modify ISO procedure for both 3100 and 3100B to guide scoping of communications services as related to QBS procurement

Conflicts:

• Provide Board members an extended preview of upcoming contracts with a timely conflict of interest notification for Tollway review
• Draft legislation to provide outside legal and ethical counsel to Board Chairman and members
• Create a conflict of interest committee
• Develop enhanced Tollway Board conflict of interest definitions
• Require Board members to publicly disclose conflicts
• Public posting of Board member statements of economic interest
• Provide annual conflict of interest training to Board members and QBS
• selection committee members
• *Identify and share vendor conflicts vetted by internal or external
• procedures (added after draft report)

Hiring:

• Enhance job descriptions
• Strengthen and enhance standard operating procedure and
• documentation for exempt positions
• Continuation of the annual internal audit of exempt hires
• Create employee conflict of interest questionnaire

In the interest of transparency, Schillerstrom explained, the ITA published a draft of the report on the Tollway’s website at the top of the Board of Directors page, where committee information is traditionally posted. The document can be found by clicking here.

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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award-winning columnist, author & former Chicago City Hall reporter (1977-1992). A veteran who served during the Vietnam War and the recipient of four SPJ Peter Lisagor Awards for column writing, Hanania writes weekly opinion columns on mainstream American & Chicagoland topics for the Southwest News-Herald, Des Plaines Valley News, the Regional News, The Reporter Newspapers, and Suburban Chicagoland.  

Hanania also writes about Middle East issues for the Arab News, and The Arab Daily News criticizing government policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A critic of mainstream news media bias, Hanania advocates for peace & justice for Israel & Palestine, & the empowerment of Arabs in America. 

"I write about three topics, the Middle East, politics and life in general. I often take my life experiences and offer them in an entertaining way to readers, and I take on the toughest topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict and don't pull any punches about what I feel is fair. But, my priority is always about writing the good story."

Click Here to LISTEN to Hanania's live radio show on 2nd Friday every month 7 AM CST. Click here to listen to Ray's Podcasts. 

His columns are archived here. Hanania was named "Best Ethnic American Columnist" by the New America Media in November 2007, and is the 2009 recipient of the SPJ National Sigma Delta Chi Award for column writing.

Email Ray Hanania at rghanania@gmail.com.

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