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Andy Shaw: Pace bus system a real slacker

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Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War movie, “Platoon,” includes a memorable line from actor Tom Berenger, playing cold-blooded Sgt. Barnes:

“There’s the way it ought to be, and there’s the way it is.”

In our watchdog world, that describes the good government we’re entitled to in exchange for our hard-earned tax dollars, and the less-than-good government we get from too many public agencies.

One of them is Pace, our suburban bus system.

OPINION

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The Better Government Association recently investigated disturbing allegations of bid rigging and other contracting irregularities at the taxpayer-supported agency. Here’s an excerpt from our report:

Several months after a Pace manager was arrested for allegedly accepting more than $280,000 in kickbacks for helping vendors secure contracts at the suburban bus agency, a former high-ranking Pace employee has filed a lawsuit claiming even more widespread procurement problems exist there.

Susan Jung Lundy, who was previously a manager of the purchasing department at Pace, said she was demoted and then fired in 2014 in retaliation for blowing the whistle on violations of competitive bidding rules, the July complaint says.

While still working at Pace, Lundy reported to the agency’s ethics officer that Pace Executive Director Thomas J. Ross and other employees shared “confidential information about the bidding process with board members” while procurement decisions were still pending, according to the lawsuit.

We don’t know if the allegations are true, but we’re painfully aware of Pace’s well documented arrogance and hostility toward public transparency.

So perhaps it’s time to re-ask an old question: Should Pace be eliminated as a stand-alone agency?

Illinois, as we’ve pointed out frequently in the BGA’s “smart streamlining” campaign, has too many government entities that do next to nothing, or things other agencies could easily absorb, so why not consider saving millions in overhead by combining Pace and Metra into one transit operation that provides bus and rail service in the suburbs, like CTA does in the city?

Metra’s hardly a model of good government — it’s had its share of big scandals — but Pace is a slacker, and a costly one: The agency recently spent $500,000 on legal fees, presumably related to the recent contracting scandal.

I say “presumably” because Pace won’t tell us what the bill covers, or release their internal report on the contracting mess, or answer any serious questions.

That’s nothing new. We had to sue the agency for refusing to turn over payroll records in a usable format, and violating state law by not supplying data on bus crashes, and alcohol and drug testing of bus drivers.

Taxpayers and watchdogs need basic information like that to understand how Pace is operating, but our inquiries are often met with hostility from its top bureaucrats, including one who defied credulity by claiming his job is to protect Pace’s image.

Really? We thought public employees were supposed to serve the public.

That reminds us of a story we did a couple of years ago about Pace staffers goofing off on the Internet when they should have been working.

Sadly, that’s the way it is, not the way it ought to be, so maybe it’s time for the Regional Transportation Agency — which oversees Pace, Metra and the CTA — to reconsider Pace’s future.

Perhaps they’ll decide to fill Pace buses with its employees and drive them to a new home at Metra headquarters.

Ride on!

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

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga