St. Louis Post-Dispatch
May 22, 2011
BY KEVIN McDERMOTT

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. • The March 17 monthly meeting of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board began at 10 a.m. in Springfield.

The board members approved the minutes of the previous month's meeting. They discussed labor disputes from several school districts. They issued orders in several cases. They heard staff reports. They moved the date of the next monthly meeting. They took six votes (all unanimous), including the adjournment vote, which came at 11:16 a.m.

Their effective pay for that 76-minute meeting was about $7,800 each.

Four of the board members are paid $93,926 a year, with the chairwoman getting $104,358 for a job that generally entails one meeting per month, usually for one to two hours. Relevant documents are sent to board members' homes ahead of time. A full-time staff member gives them recommendations at the meeting. Most of the votes are unanimous. Some board members don't even travel to all the meetings, instead listening in by phone.

How do you get a gig like that? Technically, you just have to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. But the members of the educational labor board aren't what you'd call typical citizens.

One is married to a state senator. One is an ex-Springfield lobbyist. One is an ex-legislative staffer. One is an ex-gubernatorial aide.

The board is one of more than 320 in the state's executive branch, where unelected appointees preside over governmental decisions from utility rates to pollution control to property tax appeals. Some 30 of the boards offer payment for members ranging from a few hundred dollars per meeting to five or six figures a year, records show. Salaried board members also get state pensions.

A Post-Dispatch analysis of records found that the boards that pay the most are stacked with politically connected appointees. They are paid - often paid well - for duties that many times appear to be no more time-consuming than attending a dozen meetings a year.

"They make five or six figures for meeting once a month. Common people wouldn't even know how to apply for a job like that," says state Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Barrington, who has made a crusade out of challenging the state's vast array of boards and commissions.

"It's just another way for the politically connected to make money from the taxpayers," says Duffy. "They're rubber stamps. Some of them are duplicative. It's the cushiest job in government, and I can't figure out what they do."

Among the newspaper's findings:

• Political connections are prevalent among the top-paying boards and commissions. The state Human Rights Commission includes Diane Viverito, daughter of former state Sen. Louis Viverito, D-Burbank; Rozanne Ronen, sister of former state Sen. Carol Ronen, D-Chicago; Marylee Freeman, wife of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman; Marti Baricevic, wife of former St. Clair County Board Chairman John Baricevic; and as of last month, Terry Cosgrove, head of the powerful abortion-rights lobbying group Personal PAC, which spent more than $1.3 million in the 2010 state elections.

• The number of state boards and commissions has proliferated, despite vows by politicians to trim them. In 2003, Gov. Rod Blagojevich decried that 15 commissions paid their members, and he vowed to slash that number to four. Today, that number is around 30.

• Some of the boards appear to duplicate responsibilities handled by other parts of state government or each other. The four members of the Illinois Miners' Examining Board, for example, get annual stipends of $12,906 to certify coal miners, while each of the six members of the State Mining Board gets $15,651 to do essentially the same thing for mine managers.

• Some of the boards, such as the Educational Labor Relations Board, require specific expertise and prohibit outside employment. But on several other boards, those restrictions don't apply, allowing appointees with no special training to make mid-five-figure second salaries for what amounts to a few days' worth of work per year.

• Some board seats have been left perpetually unfilled, with no apparent ill effects. In one case, a politically connected, highly paid member of the state's Prisoner Review Board stopped attending meetings or doing any other work for 17 months - but wasn't removed and replaced until his absences were reported in the media last year.

• Even unpaid boards and commissions can rack up significant expenses. A state audit two years ago questioned the expenditure of $98,000 by the unpaid Amistad Commission (designed to promote awareness of the slave trade) for a catered event for fewer than 300 teachers. A state spokesman last week said the commission has expired since then, but it's still on the official list - and a $300,000 appropriation is tucked within a state budget bill that was moving through the Legislature last week.

Other states have boards with paid members, including Missouri. Gov. Jay Nixon's administration lists about 230 boards and commissions on its official website, about 100 fewer than the Illinois has.

Missouri's board salaries are slightly lower than Illinois board salaries. Missouri's Industrial Relations Commission members are paid $105,069 annually, compared to $117,043 for members of the Illinois Commerce Commission. Missouri's Board of Probation and Parole members make $83,094, while their counterparts on the Illinois Prisoners Review Board make $85,886.

Illinois would seem to have a greater incentive than most states to watch its dollars: The state recently imposed a 67 percent hike in its personal income tax rate to address a $13 billion budget deficit, is chronically late on bills, has an endangered credit rating and has made deep cuts in state services.

On taking office in 2009, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn included the state's board-and-commission system among the areas of state government that needed cleaning up in the post-Blagojevich era, along with campaign finance, purchasing and lobbying reform.

Quinn has since taken credit for making "all of the state's boards and commissions more honest, transparent and accessible." Quinn signed into law a new requirement that board and commission members file statements of economic interest. He also established a website (http://appointments.illinois.gov/appointmentsListing.cfm) where the public can see the list of all 322 boards and commissions under the governor's office, including appointees and salaries.

But some say Quinn's most high-profile commission appointment so far indicates that those historic connections are still firmly in place.

In early April, Quinn fought for and won an appointment to the state's Human Rights Commission for Cosgrove, director of the Illinois abortion-rights organization Personal PAC and one of the most influential issues activists in the state.

Cosgrove's group raises money for abortion-rights politicians - generally Democrats - and in that capacity spent about $1.3 million in state politics in 2010, largely to the benefit of Quinn's Democratic Party.

"He is a passionate advocate for everyone's rights," Quinn said at the time, when Republicans accused him of using the appointment as a reward to a key political supporter. "I only look at people based on their qualifications."

Cosgrove didn't return calls seeking comment last week.

His Human Rights Commission appointment pays $46,960 for a position that generally entails a few hours' worth of meetings per month. Board members generally meet two days per month, once as a full board and again in smaller panels, to consider complaints filed with the state's Department of Human Rights. Members are allowed to keep their day jobs - as Cosgrove has at Personal PAC, according to staffers there.

As with many of the state's boards, the gathering of testimony, research, and initial rulings have already been handled by full-time staff, so the board members just have to vote on the issues. Board minutes show the twice-a-month meetings generally last fewer than two hours each and sometimes under an hour.

Different boards have different rules and schedules, but reviews of records indicated some common factors: Their meetings, often once or twice a month, tend to be short. Votes are most often unanimous. Most of what board members are expected to do is done alone, at home, reviewing the cases that will come before them for the votes.

At the Pollution Control Board, for example, members generally meet once or twice of a month to rule on environmental cases, including landfill siting and other issues that have already been through attorneys, hearing officers and staff.

Between those meetings, the appointed board members are expected to keep busy - generally at home - reviewing lengthy records of testimony and information for cases. The board members access the information online. The meetings themselves are short, consisting primarily of staff presentations and the board's votes, records show.

Pollution Control Board member Andrea Moore describes the meetings as "very perfunctory" but insisted that doesn't make it a part-time job. A former legislator, Moore and her three fellow board members earn $117,043 annually. The chair makes $121,040.

"You have a tremendous amount of work" reviewing cases, Moore said. "A big part of what you're doing is reading ... Some of the work is done at home. That doesn't mean it isn't being done."

At the Educational Labor Relations Board, members meet once a month to consider collective bargaining issues involving teachers and school districts. Chairwoman Lynne Sered said it's typical for members to work at home, reviewing the educational collective bargaining cases they will vote on during their monthly meeting.

"The office is the board member's home," Sered said. She said communication between board members between those monthly meetings is discouraged, as it could violate the state's Open Meetings Act.

Sered is a lawyer with extensive background in labor issues who has been on the board since 2000. Still, her elevation to the $104,358 chair's post last year might have been expected to create some controversy, because she is married to Democratic state Sen. Jeff Schoenberg of Evanston.

But Duffy, the Barrington senator, was the only opponent to Sered's appointment. In a debate that rankled fellow senators, Duffy said the appointment "smells of typical pay-to-play politics in Illinois," and he reminded his colleagues that salaried board posts come with state pensions. "They're going to be paid for life by taxpayers." Sered was confirmed with Duffy casting the sole dissenting vote.

Duffy has made a habit in the past few years opposing one proposed board appointment after another while pointing out whatever political connection the appointee has.

"When I started talking about this, people told me, off the record, ‘This is what the majority party does, gives spouses and supporters these positions,' " Duffy said last week. "I'm getting flack from all sides. It makes everyone uncomfortable when I stand up and point this stuff out."

Moore, the Pollution Control Board member, said those connections and the connections of former lawmakers like herself, shouldn't be disqualifying.

"You have a governor who appoints and you have a Senate that approves," she noted. She said it makes sense they would turn to people whose abilities have already been proven. "Should they be disqualified?"

Duffy introduced legislation in February that would bar the relatives of state officials from getting board or commission appointments. The legislation didn't even get a committee hearing.

Hannah Hess of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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