Government transparency is woefully inadequate in many public agencies – including the Illinois Department of Transportation, or IDOT, which over the past couple of years has been anything but forthcoming as we sought answers on potentially illegal patronage hiring.
Now IDOT is facing scrutiny about a more literal transparency matter: Tinted windows on state vehicles.
Over the past few months, the Better Government Association has spotted IDOT trucks with darkened passenger- and driver-side windows, making it tough to see inside, and raising questions about motivations of the occupants.
Out of fairness, we should say we haven’t found any goofing off, but we did find that one of the IDOT trucks was apparently illegally tinted, and at least one more vehicle was tinted without the agency’s permission.
Our questions, which were prompted by tips, in turn prompted IDOT to review its broader Chicago-area fleet for improper tinting.
The two vehicles that most caught our eye were parked at IDOT facilities in Oakbrook Terrace and Chicago.
We snapped pictures and showed them to Fred Hayes, the police chief in far southwest suburban Elwood and president of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
“To me, it seems to be some kind of attempt to hide what’s going on inside the truck, whether they’re sleeping . . . I hope that’s not the case,” Hayes told the BGA.
Hayes said based on our photos, he’d definitely pull over the orange Oakbrook Terrace truck, because its front-side windows make it virtually impossible to see the driver. The other vehicle, a white truck from Chicago’s Eisenhower maintenance yard, was a tougher call, he said.
Used to be, cops could pull someone over and write them a ticket if officers couldn’t see inside. Now, it’s not as easy. Five years ago, the state changed the law on window tinting. State law now requires front-side windows let in at least 35 percent of light. Officers can still make a traffic stop if they can’t see inside, but they’re not supposed to write a ticket unless they have a special tint meter, something most squads don’t have in Illinois, Hayes said.
Still, it’s a safety issue, not only because police can’t see the driver – which is important, because an officer needs to know whether a driver is holding a weapon – but also because the driver can’t see outside the vehicle, he said.
“I liken it to sitting behind the wheel with sunglasses on at night,” Hayes said.
To be clear, we’re talking about side windows only; tinting windshields is not allowed except at the very top of the glass, where a little tint can blunt sunlight, and nobody at IDOT to our knowledge has crossed the line in that regard.
IDOT oversees the construction and resurfacing of state roads and highways, and maintains them, plowing in the winter, patching potholes, picking up garbage.
An IDOT spokesman told us the two trucks we discovered with tinted glass are assigned to supervisors, and they’re on call for emergencies – such as accidents and weather problems.
The IDOT spokesman, Guy Tridgell, said the workers, not the taxpayers, paid for the window tinting.
“It looks like a small, unknown number elected to get some tinting done on their own. We understand this was primarily for security reasons” – protecting tools inside from theft – “and protection from sunlight during the summer,” Tridgell told us via email.
There’s no specific policy regarding window tinting on state vehicles, according to documents and interviews. Tridgell said minimal — but still legal — window tinting might be allowed, but only if the driver gets prior approval.
That didn’t happen in these two cases. What’s worse, Hayes’ judgment was right – the windows on the Oakbrook Terrace truck turned out to be so dark they were apparently illegal, Tridgell confirmed, adding the tinting has since been removed.
The tinting on the Oakbrook Terrace truck was an adhesive do-it-yourself job, and was easily peeled off, Tridgell said. A quick check online shows the adhesive sells for around $20.
As for the Eisenhower yard truck, the windows were not quite dark enough to be illegal, Tridgell said.
It’s worth noting that one of IDOT’s missions is to promote safe driving.
In the meantime, IDOT is checking all of its trucks in Cook County and the collar counties to make sure there aren’t more illegally tinted vehicles.
“In the interim, we have issued an order and reminder to staff that any modifications to assigned vehicles must be approved in advance,” Tridgell said.
Hayes doesn’t think any state-owned vehicles should have dark tinting in the front because of the potential liability in a crash.
“I think it puts the state in a precarious position,” he said.
Plus, there’s the whole issue of transparency.
“I can’t think of any legitimate reason for a state maintenance truck to do that other than to hide from view of the public,” Hayes said.
Other IDOT-related stories from 2014
From our Investigators’ Notebook Blog:
This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick McCraney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (815) 483-1612.
Image credit: An IDOT truck spotted recently with tinted windows, BGA photo/Patrick McCraney