The core problem facing Illinois state government is the corrosive public service culture in Springfield.
Elected officials are a big part of the problem but at least we put a few of them in prison from time to time. The worst culprits are the appointed leaders of various departments in the vast and overwhelming state government who fail to hold employees accountable, don't take their jobs seriously and allow public corruption and patronage to take place while they willfully look the other way. These department leaders have created a toxic culture which damages public trust in government a little more everyday.
The story of John Rice is only the most recent example of this culture at work. John Rice was a long time member of that 36th Ward Democratic Organization. Rice served as Ald. Billy Bank's personal driver and "chief of staff." When Banks bailed, he asked Mayor Daley to appoint Rice as Alderman so that the insider game could continue in the ward.
Along came Nick Sposato, a Chicago firefighter, who staged a major upset by defeating Rice for the 36th Ward Alderman post in April 2011. Rice was out of a job and out of power. Having embarrassed the Democratic organization, Rice's prospects would have looked bleak to the average observer.
Ah, but this is Illinois and Rice is a lifelong, loyal Democratic ward worker. He never had to worry about where his next paycheck would come from. It would come from you, the Illinois taxpayer.
With his limited experience running a small valet service and a snowplowing company, Rice was hired as the Deputy Director of Traffic Safety for the Illinois Department of Transportation. The position pays $84,420 a year. Did you just feel your wallet get lighter?
As recently as October, there was no vacancy in that position according to the IDOT employee directory. There is no record that the job was ever posted publicly. In fact, as of the writing of this article, Rice's name still does not appear on the directory for the position. Look for yourself: http://www.dot.state.il.us/directory.html
The Chicago News Cooperative's Hunter Clauss broke this shameful story on December 9th, 2011 and accurately reported that the job Rice was given is exempt from the civil service process which bans patronage hiring (hiring based on paying back someone for previous political loyalty instead of resume or tangible qualifications). As one 41st ward blogger put it, the position is one of many dumping grounds for clout heavy political losers.
Illinois's unemployment rate as of November 2011 is 10%. The median annual income for an Illinoisan is $53,974 while 13.3% live below the poverty line according the U.S. Census Bureau.
Your state transportation department chose to hire a political washout with no college degree and they agreed to pay him $30,000 a year more than the average Illinoisan, whose taxes pay his salary. None of the other unemployed, many of whom are more qualified, ever got a fair shot at the state job.
Want me to calculate his health plan and future pension? No you really don't ...
Michael R. Stout is the Director of Traffic Safety for the IDOT, the person Rice reports to and one would assume, he had a hand in the hiring of Rice. I certainly hope Mr Stout and IDOT's HR department can produce a viable reason for this hiring.
Perhaps the chairman of the IL House Transportation: Vehicles & Safety Committee, John D'Amico will investigate this. Perhaps IL Senate Transportation Committee Chairman, Martin Sandoval will launch a probe. Perhaps Ricardo Meza, the IL State Inspector General will have a look and release his findings. Perahps the office of IL Attorney General Lisa Madigan will do the same.
Or perhaps no one will do anything. Perhaps no one defends the institution of public service anymore against greedy political washouts who wish to serve themselves instead of the public.
This is what is really wrong with Illinois. It's not the systems or the politics or the money alone. It's the people who are now in positions of public trust within state government. It's their lack of character and integrity. It's the people in a position to stop the patronage who have no interest in seeking to build public trust because they think no one is looking. It's the lack of courage displayed by department leaders who forgot the meaning of public service a long time ago. It's the people in appointed government positions.
Every time a John Rice gets hired, public trust in Illinois government erodes further. When the hiring is not investigated by committees, inspectors or lawyers; the trust erodes further. With every shred of trust lost, respect for the law and an ethical code of conduct fade with it. The lack of trust and respect in our state has created a culture of corruption and selfishness in which it is considered acceptable to sacrifice the interests of the citizen taxpayer to please powerful political bureaucrats. Before any substantive policy changes can occur for Illinois, the cultural environment that occupies the halls of state government must drift toward reform. As long as guys like Rice keep getting hired, you will know that the tide of reform has not yet come in.