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Former University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise

Andy Shaw: Say hello to the Golden Parachute Club

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The recent dustup over the exorbitant severance deal the University of Illinois offered its embattled Champaign-Urbana chancellor, Phyllis Wise, reminds me of an oft-quoted line from the “Master of Malapropism,” baseball great Yoga Berra:

“This is like déjà vu all over again.”

In case you missed it, Wise was set to resign after several major controversies, including an embarrassing revelation that she used a personal email account to conduct public university business.

Email abuse is a good government no-no, but we’ll save that for another column.

OPINION

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This one is about super-sized exit payouts, also known as “golden parachutes,” to public officials who leave their jobs amid allegations of malfeasance or under-performance.

It’s like giving a maritime award to the Titanic captain for running into the iceberg.

In the case of Ms. Wise, whose salary as chancellor is a whopping $549,000, she was set to receive a $400,000 bye-bye bonus, along with a tenured professorship at $300,000 a year.

As mind-boggling as those numbers are to this Better Government Association watchdog, imagine the apoplectic reaction of students facing ever-rising college costs, including onerous debt loads.

Sadly, we’ve seen this indefensible largesse too many times before, and I’ve written about it — embattled public officials whose often hush-hush severance deals further enrich them on the taxpayers’ dime.

Remember former Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard, who bumbled into the city’s first teachers’ strike in 20 years in 2012? He retired well before his two-year contract expired — with a $250,000 check.

Other charter members of the galling “Golden Parachute Club” include:

+ Former College of DuPage President Robert Breuder, who was offered a $763,000 contract buyout, and his name on a school building, despite a litany of dubious decisions and expenditures that sparked multiple investigations.

+ Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford, whose forced departure for challenging House Speaker Michael Madigan’s personnel requests was accompanied by an $871,000 good-bye kiss.

+ Former City Colleges Chancellor Wayne Watson, who presided over a calamitous drop in the graduation rate but still walked off with a $125K bonus and $500,000 for unused sick, vacation and personal days.

Fortunately, U. of I. trustees recently wised up to Wise, rescinding her severance package at the urging of Governor Rauner, and the College of DuPage board is moving to unravel Breuder’s severance deal.

Even state lawmakers in Springfield are getting fed up, voting a few months ago to end the secrecy surrounding many of these “golden parachutes” by making government severance agreements available under the Freedom of Information Act.

The bill, backed by the BGA, is now sitting on the governor’s desk, so someone please pass Mr. Rauner a pen.

Another important transparency initiative that’s gaining traction, and has BGA support, would prevent government agencies from putting confidentiality requirements, or “gag orders,” on certain details in their exit agreements.

Illinois legislators should approve that measure next, and then have an intelligent conversation about whether to ban taxpayer-subsidized “golden parachutes” altogether, or at least limit them to special situations.

It’s more than enough to reward underperforming top tier bureaucrats with exceedingly generous salaries, benefits and perks while they’re on the job.

So let’s admit, as Yogi said, that “we made too many wrong mistakes,” and start reminding our evanescent exiting executives not to let the door hit them in the you-know-what on their way out.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association.

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

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