Metro-East News

Democratic legislation would take appointments away from GOP county board chairman

State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, is pushing two legislative measures that would take away board appointments made by Republican Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler.

Prenzler says those efforts to take those appointments away are politically motivated and would minimize Madison County’s voice on how tax money is spent on such public services as sanitary sewer drainage, flood control and mass transit.

One appointment targeted under the legislation proposed by Hoffman is to the Metro-East Sanitary District Board, which oversees how storm and sanitary sewer water is managed in the western parts of Madison and St. Clair counties.

In previous years the district ran budget deficits while pumps to alleviate flooding had fallen in disrepair. Conditions in the district have improved, sanitary district officials say.

The other measure offered by Hoffman seeks to limit how many people from Madison County can appoint to the Bi-State Development Board, which oversees the MetroLink and MetroBus system, Gateway Arch Riverfront, St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, among other entities.

Prenzler’s appointments have to be approved by the Madison County Board.

Hoffman proposed requiring that the mayor of the largest municipality in the Metro East Sanitary District be a voting commissioner on the board and taking one appointment away from Prenzler. This proposal was vetoed last year by Rauner.

The MESD board has five members, three from Madison County and two from St. Clair County. Madison County has a slightly larger assessed valuation than St. Clair County within the sanitary district. Each county’s board chairman must appoint at least one member from the opposing political party to the board.

If Hoffman’s measure goes through, it would lead to Granite City, a traditionally Democratic area, to having its mayor on the sanitary board, and setting up Democratic control of the board.

“Currently, the Metro East Sanitary District does not have adequate representation from the largest city in the district,” Hoffman said. “That is why the mayor of Granite City or his designee should be on the board.”

Prenzler countered at the House committee hearing that two of the Madison County appointees live in Granite City and the third, lives near to Granite City.

Rauner’s veto

When Rauner, a Republican, vetoed the legislation last year, he characterized it as an effort to politically manipulate the board from Springfield. With the subsequent election of J.B. Pritzker as governor and a democratic control of both the state House and Senate, Hoffman’s proposals stand a good chance at being passed.

In August 2018, the Metro East Sanitary District board approved a three-year contract with Stephen Adler to be its executive director. The deal was retroactive to 2017 and expires in 2020, said Board President Charlie Brinza. It also provides for a severance package, should Adler be fired without cause.

Hoffman’s proposed legislation would prohibit the director of the MESD from having a contract lasting more than one year, bonus pay or a severance package.

During a House Executive Committee hearing, where both pieces of legislation received recommendations to be passed, Hoffman called severance pay unprecedented for the district.

“This contract basically ensures a three-year salary for this individual even if he is fired,” Hoffman said. “This is unconscionable and is one more reason why reform is needed and this bill is required.”

Brinza said the contract, which pays Adler $97,500 a year, was meant to allow for stability in district leadership based on changes in the local political winds.

“We thought it was a good way to improve service and decrease cost,” Brinza said.

Adler added he has never been paid a bonus since taking over the sanitary district.

In this August 2017 file photo, Steve Adler, executive director of the Metro-East Sanitary District, stands outside the pumping station where the Cahokia Canal enters the Mississippi River. It’s located on the East St. Louis riverfront and has enormous pumps that help pump drainage waters from the canal into the river during flood situations. Tim Vizer

After Adler became executive director, the district cut 28 jobs, balanced the budget after years of deficits, and introduced flood control measures.

“Employees were complaining to us about feeling stress, half the pumps were not working,” Prenzler said. “We have really focused on that and proud of our achievements. We’ve turned it around.”

State Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, who has weighed in on Hoffman’s efforts, said if MESD legislation went through, the sanitary district would go back to it previous problems.

“I just believe the district is running correctly now. It seems we made it through flooding with not the flooding issues we’ve had in the past,” Meier said. “Why should we go back to the way it was running before where it was costing the taxpayer extra money every year? We want to keep it running correctly.”

In reaction to opposition from Meier, Hoffman said at Wednesday’s executive committee hearing, “that’s interesting. I don’t believe Rep. Meier has any area in the sanitary district.”

Bi-State Development Board appointments

Hoffman also is pushing a measure to reduce the number of appointees from Madison County to the Bi-State Development Board.

Illinois and Missouri each have five seats on the Bi-State Board. Under current state law, St. Clair and Madison County alternate each year on who makes an appointment to the board for a five-year term.

Of the five Illinois seats, three are currently members appointed by Democratic St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern. Two members were appointed by Prenzler.

Bi-State is the agency that overlaps Illinois and Missouri and oversees the Metro Public Transportation system, MetroBus and MetroLink, as well as the St. Louis Regional Freightway, Gateway Arch Riverfront, St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, and the Bi-State Development Research Institute.

Hoffman’s legislation calls for taking a Bi-State Board appointment from Madison County and giving it St. Clair County, so that there would be four people from St. Clair County and one from Madison County.

Specifically it calls for limiting the number of board members from counties without light-rail service to one, and replaced by an appointee from the county with light-rail service.

Steve Nagy

Prenzler said there has never been a problem with the alternating appointments arrangement put in place in 2004.

“There’s no reason to change the manner in which commissioners are appointed,” Prenzler said. “This amendment would adversely affect Madison County, Madison County Transit and the many people it serves, and upset the balance that exists in the metro-east.”

Madison County has a 0.25 percent sales tax for its public transportation system. Madison County Transit runs its own bus system and doesn’t have MetroLink service. St. Clair County has a 0.75 percent sales tax for the county’s public transit district which contracts with Metro to provide both bus and MetroLink service in the county.

Justin Zimmerman, a Bi-State board member appointed by Prenzler, said the proposal would reduce Madison County’s oversight of Bi-State.

“It’s not about me, it’s not about the county board chairman,” Zimmerman said. “This is about Madison County and making sure Madison County residents have a voice on the board.”

While presenting the legislation at Wednesday’s committee, Hoffman said St. Clair County generates $57 million a year that goes to Bi-State.

Hoffman added Madison County does a great job with its transit system, but reiterated it doesn’t pay into Bi-State.

“Therefore this would reflect, I believe, an equitable representation of the money that is put in and the fact that St. Clair County has light rail,” Hoffman said. “I don’t believe this would affect Madison County. I am committed to making sure that the Madison County Transit authority, as well as any other entity in Madison County, is fully funded.”

Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referenda.