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Shakeup at Tollway consolidates more power to part-time chair, leaves pair of top officials behind

Illinois Tollway
Michael Kappell/Flickr.com

Members of the Illinois Tollway Board will gather in person for the first time since the pandemic began for a special meeting Tuesday morning, just 12 days after voting to significantly reorganize the agency’s executive structure.

The reorganization vote — which took just over a minute on Oct. 21 — left the Tollway’s part-time chairman with considerably more management and oversight duties than any other chair in recent history, while significantly reducing the number of direct reports to the agency’s executive director by adding a level of management below him. Two of those former direct reports have also departed from the agency.

Tollway officials are painting the reasons behind the reorganization as good governance practices not tied to any particular issue, and the morning after the Board approved the reorganization plan, Tollway Chair Will Evans characterized the moves as ones that will “strengthen internal controls,” according to an Oct. 22 email sent to Tollway staff last month obtained by NPR Illinois.

“As with any good organization, continual improvement of governance and internal controls is an imperative part of the ongoing building of the organization,” Tollway spokesman Dan Rozek said in a statement Monday.

But some Tollway Board members are now questioning the magnitude of what they voted for last month, NPR Illinois has learned.

Under the reorganization, Tollway Executive Director José Alvarez will no longer oversee the agency’s chief financial officer. Instead, Tollway Chair and CEO Will Evans will — along with the new chain of command below the chief financial officer, which includes two roles that Alvarez used to have direct authority over.

“Given the Board of Director’s fiduciary responsibility to the agency, the Chairman and CEO, as well as the Board, believed it was in the best interests to have the Finance Department report directly to the Chairman and CEO,” Rozek said. “This has been an informal arrangement for some time, that has now been formalized.”

Alvarez earns $223,200 annually as executive director, while Evans earns $36,077 per year in the part-time role. Gov. JB Pritzker appointed Evans chair early in his term in Feb. 2019 and hired Alvarez two months later. Both were “strongly endorsed” by now-indicted former Commonwealth Edison lobbyist John Hooker, according to Sun-Timesreporting from before his indictment last year.

“In the case of both chairman Evans and executive director Alvarez, the Business Leadership Council, including John Hooker, strongly endorsed their work,” the paper quoted Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh as saying in November 2019 — well before Hooker was tied to a bribery scheme that would eventually topple longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-Chicago), though Madigan has not been charged.

Hooker had overlapped with Alvarez during their time at the Chicago Housing Authority Board, where Hooker had been board chair from 2015 to 2019 and Alvarez had been chief operating officer for CHA. Alvarez’s staff recruitment raised eyebrows early last year after the Daily Heraldreported the executive director had hired nine people he used to work with at the Chicago Housing Authority.

Pritzker began his term clearing house at the Tollway, signing legislation to dissolve the old Tollway Board and codifying new ethics standards for the agency that’s seen its share of scandals dating back decades. The governor appointed a new Board of Directors to oversee the Tollway, including Evans.

In introducing the organizational restructuring item last month, the Tollway’s Oct. 21 meeting agenda asserted that Board members had already approved a preceding move 18 months prior. In April 2020, the Board amended its By-Laws to delegate its authority to reorganize the agency to Evans as the Tollway’s board chair.

“In April 2020…the Board amended [its bylaws] to permit delegation of its authority to create or reorganize the Tollway’s administrative offices and departments, and prescribe the duties thereof, to the Chairman of the Board,” according to last month’s meeting agenda.

A year and a half later, Evans “determined that it is necessary to reorganize the Tollway’s administrative offices and departments,” according to the agenda, and it’s “in the best interest of the Tollway to reorganize” the agency’s administrative offices and departments and “prescribe the duties thereof” to Evans. In a unanimous vote that took a little over 60 seconds, the Board approved just that.

But a review of the Board’s April 2020 meeting agenda, minutes and archived audio do not show the Board’s approval of bylaw changes was was supposed to delegate authority to Evans to reorganize the agency. Instead, the two items on the April 2020 meeting agenda outlined changes having to do with the Tollway Board’s committees.

No other Board meeting agenda from 2020 mentions other changes to the Tollway’s bylaws except for February 2020, which does not include any description of those changes. Archived video from that meeting shows it was deferred to a future meeting.

In the next few days after the reorganization, two of Alvarez’s former direct reports, Chief Administrative Officer Kimberly Ross and Chief Procurement Compliance Officer Dee Brookens separated from the Tollway. Rozek declined to confirm the pair were terminated from their jobs, but said they no longer work for the agency.

Alvarez now only has one direct recruit: the Tollway’s chief operating officer, who now directly oversees many of the eight executive staff positions Alvarez used to oversee. The chief financial officer, now overseen by Evans, will also directly manage the Tollway’s chiefs of IT and business systems — two positions Alvarez also no longer oversees.

Rozek said that’s another move for better oversight.

“It is beneficial to have all “Order to Cash” operations tightly integrated with the Finance team, and in the Tollway’s case, Procurement, IT and Business Systems are a major part of these operations,” Rozek said in a statement.

Illinois Tollway new organizational chart as of Oct. 21, 2021.
Courtesy of Illinois Tollway
Illinois Tollway new organizational chart as of Oct. 21, 2021.
Illinois Tollway organizational chart prior to Oct. 21, 2021.
Courtesy Illiinois Tollway
Illinois Tollway organizational chart prior to Oct. 21, 2021.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving on to CNI in 2023.