Two more public executives were dismissed from their jobs in recent weeks, taking with them thousands of dollars in severance deals funded by taxpayers who are left largely in the dark.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District President David St. Pierre left at the end of June, but taxpayers didn’t know about it until July, and they might never know why. A few weeks ago, Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn was sent away after controversy that had swirled for months. Eventually, it was revealed that he was secretly discussing with some officials splitting up the SIU system, which includes campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville.

OPINION

The severance pay that St. Pierre and Dunn got isn’t as outrageous as some of the nearly $800,000 deals we’ve seen in Illinois over the years. But it all adds up, especially when it’s taxpayers on the hook and in the dark.

Dunn will get $215,000 in severance, according to The Southern, the equivalent of six months’ pay. But that’s not all. He gets to take the next five months off and then can take a visiting professorship job at the Edwardsville campus in January, making $100,000 a year. Not a bad deal for someone who was keeping secret from his bosses on the SIU board the fact that he was working privately to advise others how they might support legislation to split up the two campuses he was overseeing.

St. Pierre got $95,000, equal to a few months of his $292,000 annual pay in 2017. The district’s taxpayers will cover his health insurance for six months, and the sick, vacation and holiday time he has accrued.

Why is he gone? We might never know. These separation deals tend to include confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses that apply to both the employer and the employee.

Then there are the untold costs of paying the lawyers, who inevitably are part of these going-away deals. The MWRD does not yet have an inspector general, so it hired an outside law firm, Foley & Lardner, to investigate claims against St. Pierre. The district has paid Foley & Lardner more than $103,000 since last fall, according to public documents, though it’s not clear whether all of that was for the probe involving St. Pierre.

St. Pierre told Brett Chase, an investigative reporter with the Better Government Association, only that he was looking forward to moving on and was proud of his work to reduce flooding.

Taxpayers deserve more from the district that spends more than $1 billion annually from their taxes, and employs 2,000 people. Board Commissioner Debra Shore told Chase the investigation into St. Pierre did not involve criminal or sexual claims.

What did it involve? We’re left with secrets, speculation and darkness. This situation only underscores the need for commissioners to finish their work on setting up a fully empowered inspector general for the massive government body. Had an inspector general been in place, taxpayers at least could have had the benefit of an investigative summary report from that office. Right now, we get no more from the governmental body that is tasked with keeping our homes dry and our water healthy.

The Government Severance Pay Act is a bill drafted and supported by the Better Government Association’s policy unit. If Gov. Bruce Rauner signs it into law in the next several weeks, it will limit future severance deals for public executives to five months’ pay and could remove the guesswork, secret negotiations and legal fees inherent in these go-away deals. Severance pay could be withheld altogether if an executive is found to have engaged in misconduct.

Some states also have passed “sunshine-in-litigation laws,” which prevent agreements and confidential contracts from being enforceable if they conceal information about a public hazard.

Florida has had such a law since 1990. It says “any agreement or contract having the purpose of concealing information relating to a public hazard is void and unenforceable because such agreements are against public policy.”

Such laws most often are used in product liability situations, but they are being discussed more and more in the context of sexual harassment claims against executives and employers who frequently make workers sign non-disparagement agreements.

St. Pierre’s deal included both confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses.

Taxpayers don’t know who did what, what’s at stake or whether our water safety was compromised. In Dunn’s case, the trust between him and university directors was damaged beyond repair, and the taxpayers are left with that tab and their own trust deficit.

All these secrets in our government only underscore the need for independent inspectors general, severance pay limits and sunshine-in-litigation laws. If we can’t expect transparency, we’ll have to keep working to enact laws that demand it.

Madeleine Doubek is vice president of policy for the Better Government Association.  

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