DOUBEK: Huge buyouts sock it to taxpayers

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A top public official in Illinois underperforms or, sometimes, even gets caught misbehaving and what do we do? Too often, the answer has been to give them a six-figure, padded landing. It’s time to stop that nonsense once and for all.

OPINION

The Better Government Association recently took a look at hefty public severance deals and found no fewer than nine instances of public bodies granting severance packages to top-level executives that added up to more than $5 million of taxpayer money.

In a few cases, university administrators misbehaved and were removed from their posts, but they still were granted paid sabbaticals or tenured positions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And if we’re allowing a former administrator to keep a tenured teaching position, we’re giving that person a job and a pension for life that will keep costing us.

  • Michael Hogan, a former University of Illinois president at Urbana-Champaign, resigned after it was discovered his chief of staff posed as a member of the university’s legislative body to try to influence a debate. He was paid $67,500 to end his contract. He also got a one-year paid sabbatical worth $285,000 and a teaching post with an annual salary of $285,000.
  • Richard Herman, a former chancellor at the U. of I., resigned in the midst of an admissions scandal eight years ago. He got a sabbatical worth $244,000 and a job as special assistant to the interim president with a salary of $395,000.
  • Just four years ago, former chancellor Phyllis Wise, of the U. of I., resigned as documents were released suggesting she hid information from the public, likely violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act. But she got a $365,000 sabbatical and a tenured teaching post with a salary of nearly $300,000. She left earlier this year for a Colorado job.

The good news is that state lawmakers have passed laws limiting severance packages and boosting transparency for these sorts of deals at public universities and community colleges. HB3593 and SB2159 limited severance to a year’s salary, limited contracts to four years and required public notice before a contract was extended or amended. That’s great, but it applies only to certain positions in certain public institutions and there’s no specific restriction on sabbaticals and teaching positions.

Neither of those bills covers severance deals for other government jobs like village managers or county executives, or top jobs at special agencies like Metra or the water reclamation district.

No one suggested former Metra CEO Alex Clifford had done anything wrong, but he resigned and had his contract bought out, got a promise of making up any salary difference between his current job and his next one, moving expenses, and payment for pension and medical coverage contributions for a grand total that was valued at more than $650,000. There was uproar at the time, but it’s since faded away.

This is taxpayer money. Why not stop the golden parachutes at all levels once and for all?

State Sen. Tom Cullerton, a suburban Democrat who worked on previous legislation after a severance controversy at the College of DuPage, said he hears the argument that buyouts need to be generous  to attract top talent who could go elsewhere, but he calls that “foolish.”

He said he understands some executives might lose their jobs simply because they don’t get along with a new mayor or president or board majority, and those jobs deserve “at least a minimal amount of protection,” perhaps a year’s salary that the public is aware of before it’s granted.

“There’s no need for these huge buyouts at the end,” Cullerton said. “That’s your money and my money.”

State Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat who is vice chair of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee and sponsor of the law just enacted that restricts payouts for college presidents and chancellors, agrees more can be done.

“I think we put some speed bumps in place, some pretty high ones,” Cunningham said of the law that applies to top college executives. “I think the same model we’ve put in place for universities and colleges can also be applied anywhere where they enter into contractual employment agreements. I think that’s worth looking at.”

“When a severance payment is made, something went wrong,” Cunningham said. “Taxpayers shouldn’t have to fork over a ton of money.”

California passed a law restricting school superintendents’ severance to 12 months’ pay. Florida went even further, passing a law that limits severance for any public “officer, agent, employee, or contractor” to no more than five months’ salary.

Let’s follow Florida’s lead. Let’s stop all the eye-popping, six-figure severances, paid sabbaticals, tenured positions and other giveaways, too.

If you’re leading or managing a government, you should be paid well and competitively. If you’re being asked to leave, then no more gilded parachutes. It’s time to end the cushy landings.

Madeleine Doubek is policy & civic engagement director of the Better Government Association.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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DOUBEK: Huge buyouts sock it to taxpayers

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