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Local Government

Gov. Bruce Rauner signs new laws to end plush public-employee severance deals

Two new laws taking effect this month seek to help put an end to taxpayer-funded, golden-parachute severance packages for public employees.

While the bills are inspired in great part by the scandal surrounding ousted College of DuPage President Robert Breuder and a $763,000 severance package that sparked a voter revolt, previous controversial buyouts at McHenry County College and Metra – a buyout borne of a scandal with local roots – helped lead to the new laws.

House Bill 303, signed into law earlier this month by Gov. Bruce Rauner, amends the Freedom of Information Act to forbid any severance agreement involving public funds from keeping amounts, allegations or details of the settlement confidential. House Bill 3593, aimed squarely at College of DuPage, limits community college severance agreements to one year’s salary and benefits. It also limits nonunion employment contracts to three years, forbids automatic rollover or renewal, and requires public disclosure of the contract to be approved.

Before Breuder’s severance made headlines and raised the ire of taxpayers and lawmakers, attempts to pass hush-hush severance packages for ousted leaders of MCC and Metra inspired strengthening FOIA to prevent them from happening again.

State Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, attempted in 2013 to carry a bill similar to House Bill 303 in the wake of severance packages given to former MCC President Walt Packard and former Metra CEO Alex Clifford. While the legislation passed the House without a single opposing vote, Senate leadership could not be convinced at the time to move it forward.

Althoff, who successfully carried House Bill 303 in the Senate this year, said she is happy the reform is now law. Republican Rep. Margo McDermed filed it in the House – McDermed, R-Mokena, was elected to replace retired Rep. Renee Kosel, R-New Lenox, who made the 2013 attempt.

“Attempts to try to determine how much, or why, were kept confidential, and I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the people you represent,” Althoff said.

The MCC Board of Trustees in 2009 announced Packard would retire, but it soon was revealed they, in fact, ousted him. Members would not release the separation contract to the Northwest Herald under FOIA, citing its personal privacy exemption. Trustees were forced to release it after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that public-employee contracts are public record.

Packard under the contract was hired for one year as president emeritus – a position with no defined duties or work hours – and the same $188,564 salary plus benefits he was making as president. What’s more, the contract contained no information that is defined as personal under the law.

The severance package given to Clifford, which was valued up to $718,000, sparked the 2013 attempt to pass reform laws. Lawmakers outraged at the amount were told at first that the agreement was confidential, but Clifford later testified that he was forced out because he would not agree to political patronage hiring and contract requests from some Metra Board members.

Clifford had been hired to clean up Metra after former CEO Phil Pagano killed himself in 2010 by stepping in front of a Metra train near his rural Crystal Lake home hours before the Metra Board was set to fire him over alleged financial improprieties. Investigations later revealed Pagano took at least $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts he was not entitled to, on several occasions by forging the former board chairwoman’s signature.

Breuder’s sizable buyout is only one of the many troubles College of DuPage is facing, including ongoing federal and state criminal investigations into ongoing reports of lavish spending. A new majority on its board of trustees, elected earlier this year in the wake of reports of questionable decisions and taxpayer-funded excess, is now trying to fire him and void the severance agreement.

House Bill 3593, filed by Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, would not have affected Packard’s buyout because it fell within the one-year limitation, but Althoff said the bills will help prevent future abuses.

“It’s taxpayer dollars, and most individuals had absolutely no inkling that these types of accommodations were made. Most people didn’t understand that this went on,” Althoff said.

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