Whatever was actually behind the abrupt resignation of Illinois Tollway board Chairman Will Evans and the sudden appointment of his successor, the transition avoids an uncomfortable showdown. More important, it also leaves lawmakers and tollway board members with the opportunity – if not the responsibility – to clarify the roles of its leadership.
Evans upended what many lawmakers and tollway board members themselves perceived to be the nature of his role when he declared that he was responsible for day-to-day functions of the operation, then orchestrated dramatic changes in lines of authority and fired two officials who had been appointed by Executive Director Jose Alvarez.
Lawmakers began complaining to the governor, and, appropriately, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing in December. Unfortunately, that meeting seemed to produce more questions than it answered, but Evans’ departure would seem to bring some stability to the tollway’s leadership operations.
It doesn’t, however, entirely bring clarity to the functional questions Evans brought to the table. Who is responsible for establishing the management structure at the tollway? And specifically what are the duties of the tollway board chairman and the agency’s executive director?
In naming a new board chairman, Gov. JB Pritzker praised PNC Bank Senior Vice President Dorothy Abreu’s “impressive work with government entities and nonprofit organizations.” And Abreu declared she will emphasize “collaboration, equity and transparency.”
These are encouraging reflections, but even so, one of Abreu’s first duties – and perhaps one the board must deal with as well – will be to clarify to whom the executive director reports and who reports to the executive director. To be sure, these are arcane matters of structure that shouldn’t burden the average tollway user. But if they aren’t defined unequivocally, it’s hard to imagine that the tollway can operate with the efficiency and confidence that officials at many levels have worked hard to restore.
Evans’ departure and Abreu’s arrival certainly pull the tollway out of an embarrassing public relations crisis. But it would be a mistake to declare that this simple change of personalities puts everything right with the world again.
The tollway still has far to go to demonstrate that it has moved beyond the corruption and management chaos that led lawmakers and Pritzker to initiate dramatic reforms. Evans started his tenure with an embarrassing hiring snafu, and Alvarez provided legitimate new causes for concern when he immediately introduced a leadership overhaul that added three highly paid executives he had worked with previously though they had little or no experience with transportation issues.
So, Abreu’s appearance on the scene is a welcome opportunity – not just to put an ugly incident in the past but to return the agency to the path of transparency and responsibility that underlies the entire reform process.
The Daily Herald