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Despite Quinn Vow To Cut, State Panels Stick Around

Why do we need 300-plus boards and commissions? The BGA and Springfield bureau of WCIA-TV explore the proliferation of state-backed government panels that don't always deliver for taxpayers.

By Barbara Rose

February 20, 2013 6:30 PM

BGA Boards Commisssions 365When Governor Quinn took office in 2009, following now-imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s ouster from office, his reform agenda included overhauling the more than 300 state boards and commissions supported by millions in taxpayer money but operating with little or no public scrutiny.

Yet more than three years into Quinn’s watch little has changed, except the number of such units is growing. As troubling, many don’t comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act, according to a report last year by state Auditor General William Holland.

Those findings undercut Quinn’s vow to streamline government and make the remaining boards and commissions accountable to him more open to the public. He also pledged to end the long-held practice of naming political friends and allies to lucrative paid posts but that has not always been the case.

In October 2011, the governor’s spokeswoman Brooke Anderson told the Better Government Assn. (BGA) that a "comprehensive review" of boards and commission was under way to look for ways to save money and increase efficiency. Potential actions included reducing some board sizes and salaries and merging or eliminating boards that are no longer necessary, Anderson said.

Asked for results of the review, Anderson responded in an email to the BGA that the reform process is "ongoing" and that "several boards have been identified for removal by executive order or by statute."

"This will be a matter taken up in our upcoming budget address" in early 2013, she said in the email.

Others are less patient.

Rey Lopez-Calderon, executive director of watchdog group Common Cause Illinois, said it’s time for Quinn to make good on his promises.

"This is a systemic problem," said Rey Lopez-Calderon. "We really need to push on getting reform."

Illinois taxpayers fund millions in salaries and benefits to paid boards and commissions that oversee such diverse areas as elections, utilities regulation, liquor control, and property tax appeals. Holland’s audit found that 38 boards paid a total of $8.3 million in salaries and stipends in fiscal 2009. Non-salaried boards paid a total $851,673 in per diem fees and expense reimbursements.

Salaries range widely from $117,043 for the full-time Pollution Control Board, which holds hearings and reviews environmental cases, to $15,000 for the part-time Employment Security Board of Review, which reviews decisions about unemployment insurance claims. Another employment insurance panel, the 12-member Employment Security Advisory Board, makes policy recommendations and reimburses expenses.

At the part-time Illinois Human Rights Commission (IHRC), 12 members are paid $46,960 annually plus health and pension benefits—approximately three-fourths the median salary of a full-time state worker--for working an average 13 hours per month, the BGA found in November 2011. The panel’s chairman, who has additional responsibilities, is paid $52,179.

Indeed, HRC is an example of a board running contrary to Quinn’s avowed reform agenda.

For instance, five of the IHRC commissioners are related to politically influential Democrats:

  • Marti Baricevic, appointed by Blagojevich and reappointed by Quinn, is married to 20th Circuit Judge John Baricevic, who chaired the St. Clair County Board when his wife was appointed in 2003.
  • Marylee Freeman, appointed by former Gov. George Ryan in 1999 and reappointed by Quinn, is married to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman.
  • Rozanne Ronen, appointed by Blagojevich and reappointed by Quinn, is the sister of former state Senator Carol Ronen, who served on the Democratic State Central Committee.
  • Diane Viverito, appointed by Blagojevich and reappointed by Quinn, is the daughter of former state Senator Lou Viverito (D-Burbank).
  • Patricia Bakalis Yadgir, appointed by Quinn, is the daughter of former state Comptroller and former state Superintendent of Education Michael Bakalis, a onetime Democratic gubernatorial candidate. She also is married to Robert Yadgir, senior policy advisor and communications director for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. "Her qualifications speak for themselves," Robert Yadgir said, citing her work developing anti-bullying programs and her experiences as a counselor, teacher and school administrator.

Quinn came under fire last year for naming Terry Cosgrove to the commission. Cosgrove is president and CEO of Personal PAC, a group devoted to electing pro-choice politicians. The group spent over $400,000 to help Quinn narrowly defeat Republican State Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), an opponent of abortion rights.

More recently, he named Merri Dee to the commission, a former Chicago journalist and president of the Illinois chapter of AARP. One vacancy remains on the panel.

Spokeswoman Anderson said Quinn has increased transparency in the appointments process by encouraging public participation via a web site that his administration created to track appointments and vacancies.

And a majority of the governor’s appointments have gone to people who applied via the site, she added.

Yet Quinn’s administration concedes there are so many panels and appointments, keeping up with them all is tough. "With over 322 boards and commissions, including approximately 3,000 governor-appointed positions, it has become increasingly difficult to track both current and newly created entities," Quinn’s Office of Executive Appointments wrote in response to Holland’s report, released in September 2011.

Even a precise number is hard to come by. Holland’s audit identified 333 such panels as of June 2010. Today, according to the state appointments web site, there are 346.

Anderson said the General Assembly created "a number of new boards" during the last two years, and the governor supported several temporary boards that were created for a specific mission or task. "For example, we supported a board that issued a report on local school district consolidation and another for a report on local government consolidation," she said via email.

The Auditor General’s report found that 23 percent of the boards included in the audit didn’t meet at all during three years through fiscal 2009. They either had finished their work, not yet begun, or simply were "inactive," the report said.

More troubling, many of those that did meet failed to comply with the state’s Open Meetings Act by disclosing basic information in meeting minutes. For instance, a review of the minutes of 189 panels found that 40 percent didn’t record when members were absent.

"We think Gov. Quinn ought to come up with a list of committees that ought to be cut," Lopez-Calderon said, adding, "It’s questionable whether all these boards should even exist."

Equally important is changing the system, he said. "We really need some structural change so the boards are more accountable. At the very least we should create some sort of oversight body."

Barbara Rose is a freelance investigator for the BGA. To reach the BGA, please call Robert Reed, Director of Programming and Investigations, at (312) 453-0631 or email rreed@bettergov.org.

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