At a time when nearly 2,000 Illinois employees risk losing their jobs to budget cuts and the state’s unemployment rate hovers above 9 percent, appointees to a state civil rights panel are paid as much as many full-time workers for a job requiring an average 13 hours per month, according to a Better Government Association investigation.
Twelve of the 13 members of the Illinois Human Rights Commission (IHRC) receive $46,960 annually plus health and pension benefits, or about three-fourths the median salary of a full-time state worker. The chairman, who has additional responsibilities, is paid $52,179.
These lucrative public service jobs, held at the discretion of the governor with Illinois Senate approval, have a history of going to friends and families of politically influential individuals or gubernatorial campaign supporters. An attempt to trim salaries eight years ago never progressed beyond the discussion stage, an indication of how daunting it is to reform the state’s 322 boards and commissions.
“It’s really predominately a holding place for individuals of favor,” said former Commissioner Robert Enriquez, a Republican appointed by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2005. “It is a hugely important function, but it’s been abused as far as the political system.”
A spokeswoman for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn disputes that viewpoint saying the governor “looks for qualified, competent public servants who are dedicated to fighting prejudice and who comply with the requirements and extensive criteria that are in place for appointments.”
Nonetheless, the Human Rights Commission (IHRC) has a reputation of being a soft landing spot for political party insiders and supporters. The most recent example was Gov. Pat Quinn’s appointment in April of Terry Cosgrove, president and CEO of Personal PAC, a group devoted to electing pro-choice politicians. Cosgrove’s group spent over $400,000 to help Quinn narrowly defeat Republican Bill Brady, an opponent of abortion rights. Cosgrove won Senate confirmation by a vote of 30 to 25.
Five of the current commissioners are related to politically influential Democrats:
- Marti Baricevic, appointed by Blagojevich and reappointed by Quinn, is married to 20th Circuit Judge John Baricevic, who chaired the St. Clair County Board when his wife was appointed in 2003.
- Marylee Freeman, appointed by former Gov. George Ryan in 1999 and reappointed by Quinn, is married to Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman.
- Rozanne Ronen, appointed by Blagojevich and reappointed by Quinn, is the sister of former state Senator Carol Ronen, who served on the Democratic State Central Committee.
- Diane Viverito, appointed by Blagojevich and reappointed by Quinn, is the daughter of former state Senator Lou Viverito (D-Burbank).
- Patricia Bakalis Yadgir, appointed by Quinn, is the daughter of former state Comptroller and former state Superintendent of Education Michael Bakalis, a onetime Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Nominated as an Independent, Yadgir joined the Commission in June but has yet to be confirmed because Senate Republicans dispute her political status. State law requires no more than seven Commission members of the same party.
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Despite the political overcast, few dispute the IHRC’s importance in providing a neutral forum to resolve complaints filed under the Illinois Human Rights Act. The Illinois Department of Human Rights (IDHR) investigates charges of discrimination, and the IHRC adjudicates them. The Commission decides such cases as whether a business has been falsely charged or should be liable for damages, for instance, and whether a charge dismissed by the department for lack of evidence merits a hearing. Ninety percent of the Commission’s decisions are affirmed when they are taken to the Illinois Appellate Court.
The Commission closed 800 cases in fiscal 2011, working with a $1.9 million budget and a staff of 23 including lawyers, administrative law judges, and administrative and clerical personnel.
The Commission’s staff has been forced to take pay cuts to balance its budget, yet Commission members, most of whom hold full-time private sector jobs, are paid generously for a modest time commitment.
Commissioner salaries are set according to statute by the Illinois General Assembly.
An analysis of time sheets obtained by the BGA under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) shows:
Commissioners devoted an average 12.9 hours per month to official state business for the fiscal year 2011, ending in June. The combined average was computed from time sheets filed by 14 former and current commissioners, taking into account how many months they served.
Time commitments varied widely, from an average of fewer than seven hours per month to 20 hours, based largely on how long commissioners spent reading cases in preparation for meetings.
Chairman Martin Castro devoted nearly twice as much time as an average commissioner, or 24 hours per month. He reported public speaking, statewide events and meetings, and a national civil rights conference.
The full 13-member Commission meets once a month to take up administrative and personnel matters in addition to discussing cases. These en banc meetings run between one and two hours, according to official meeting minutes. Commissioners also meet separately once a month on one of four panels to deliberate cases. Panel meetings run about one hour.
Chairman Castro also spends time on “public outreach and education, administrative and management matters, policy and legislative outreach, as well as working with staff on all these issues,” the Commission said in a statement in response to questions.
Deciding how much or whether Commissioners should be paid is not a simple issue, said former Commission Chairman J.B. Pritzker, who is credited with eliminating a large case backlog during his tenure from 2003 to 2006.
“I’m not sure you want a Commission full of only people who can afford to take the time” in a middle of a work day to serve pro bono, he said. “The views of someone who rides the bus every day and who knows what it’s like to get passed by a taxi are important.”
Commissioners’ work adjudicating claims “has a broad and profound effect on the lives of the individual litigants, the employers and the organizations that appear before the Commission seeking to enforce their rights,” the Commission’s statement said “The economic downturn and the decades of fiscal mismanagement that created Illinois’ fiscal issues do not change the fact that the people of Illinois have rights, and the state has a role in ensuring they are protected.”
The Commission said it implemented salary cuts for 30 percent of staff to balance its fiscal 2012 budget, which was cut 23 percent from the prior year. In addition, a key vacancy—General Counsel—is going unfilled.
Meanwhile, its workload may increase as a result of pending layoffs of 17 out of 60 investigators at the Department of Human Rights, the separate agency that investigates charges. Fewer investigators could create a larger backlog of cases, and any that are not investigated within a 365-day window must be referred directly to the Commission.
Budget issues have been a concern at the IHRC for years. Former Commission Chairman Pritzker explored the idea of commissioners taking a voluntary 10 percent pay cut in 2003 so they could shift the savings to offer more competitive salaries to administrative law judges.
The commissioners were “mostly in favor,” he recalled, but reducing their salaries would have required legislative action, and Pritzker was advised instead to request a special appropriation for the law judges. In the end, the salaries remained the same.
Pritzker did manage to remove his own $44,000 salary from the state payroll by asking then-state Comptroller Daniel Hynes to handle the matter administratively. (Pritzker is a BGA supporter and member of its recently formed all-volunteer Civic Leadership Committee.)
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the governor is reviewing IHRC salaries as part of a broader effort, and he is committed to working with the General Assembly on reform.
“We are currently in the process of conducting a comprehensive review of boards and Commissions, including the Human Rights Commission, to identify ways to save money and increase efficiency,” Anderson said.
Following the review, potential actions include “reducing some board sizes and salaries as well as identifying opportunities to merge boards and eliminate those that are no longer necessary while protecting essential boards,” Anderson said.
She said the governor has made more than 1,400 appointments to boards and commissions since taking office in 2009, and the majority have gone to individuals who applied through a website he ordered launched to increase transparency by encouraging public participation.
All but one of the Human Rights Commissioners applied online, she added.
Barbara Rose is a freelance investigator for the BGA.
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