Politics & Government

Prenzler could lose appointments to two local boards in ‘political power play’

Two bills, seen by critics as politically motivated, would take appointments away from Republican Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler and give them to Democrats.

This begs the question: Will first-term Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker weigh-in on the makeup of two local boards that oversee flood control and regional public transportation and sign the bills?

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Jay Hoffman, a Democrat from Swansea, would take away appointments made by Prenzler to the Metro-East Sanitary District Board and the Bi-State Development Board.

Both proposals were approved by Legislature during the last week of spring session, and were formally sent to the governor the last week in June.

“Our team is reviewing bills as they’re sent to the governor,” the governor’s office said in an email.

Pritzker has until the last week in August to sign or veto the bills. If he does neither, the pieces of legislation become law.

The MESD board has five members, three from Madison County and two from St. Clair County. Madison County has a 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.

Under the bill, if signed, a position on the MESD board would go from being appointed by Prenzler, to automatically going to the mayor, or his designee, of the largest municipality in Madison County, in this case Granite City. Ed Hagnauer, the current Granite City mayor, is a Democrat.

“I think it’s a political power play,” Prenzler said.

The Metro-East Sanitary District legislation also would require the superintendent live in the district, would prevent the district from awarding a long-term contract lasting more than a year, and from including a severance package or bonus pay. Similar legislation was passed last year, but it was vetoed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Rauner, a Republican, said at the time he wanted to make sure there wasn’t political manipulation from Springfield. Now the MESD will see whether Pritzker will view it the same way.

Hoffman could not be immediately reached for comment.

Political purge or cost cutbacks?

The legislation came forward after current director Steve Adler, a Republican who once ran for Madison County clerk, laid off more than two dozen employees to help balance the district’s operating budget. Pumps in the district also had not been functioning and there was flooding in recent years.

Prenzler said operation of the MESD has improved since new board members he appointed and Adler took over.

“We need to lay the groundwork for good local management. MESD should not be run in a political way. There has not been a political purge of the MESD.”

State Sen. Jason Plummer, R-Edwardsville, during debate on the Senate floor defended the work on the new MESD administration.

“A new board came on, and within 12 months all the pumps are working, we have fixed the budget deficits, we have found the overcharging, and what this bill does, it takes the group that has been overcharging the MESD and it puts them in charge of MESD,” Plummer said. “What we’re doing now, is we have something that was broken, we have fixed it, and this bill breaks it again.”

During debate in the last week of session, state Sen. Rachelle Crowe, D-Glen Carbon, defended having Granite City’s mayor being on the MESD board.

“What I would say about that largest municipality is they are the ones paying the most right now and they are the ones with the most at stake,” Crowe said.

Crowe said the issue was important to her predecessor, state Senator Bill Haine, an Alton Democrat.

“There were wastewater treatment bills that weren’t being paid, there was an increased tax on a low-income area, there was raw sewage dumped into the river, and those were some of the reasons and some of the duties the MESD has that they have neglected to do,” Crowe said.

Crowe added a residency requirement for the executive director would help make sure the director is held accountable.

State Sen. John Curran, R-Downers Grove, criticized the residency requirement in the legislation.

“This is essentially a termination clause, this is not a residency clause.” Curran said. “There’s a board here that has the authority, if they think the executive director is not performing, which we’ve heard no evidence that they’re not performing, that could take action, and this executive director will have due process.”

MetroLink oversight

Pritzker also has to determine how Illinois’ membership on the Bi-State Development Board will look.

Bi-State 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.

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.

The legislation passed in May, would change the makeup of the Illinois appointees. St. Clair County would get four members, and Madison County would only have one.

metrolink

The point of contention is how much money each county contributes to Bi-State. Proponents argued that St. Clair County has light-rail and contributes $57 million toward the district.

“The bill just says, ‘Let us appoint the commissioner until Madison County comes up with a light-rail system,’” said state Sen. Christopher Belt, D-Cahokia. “It’s really about equity. We’re paying $57 million of our money, we really want to have some say so on how the board goes.”

During the state Senate debate, Plummer called the Bi-State legislation politically motivated.

“When you hear the general population talk about Congress, or the Illinois State Senate, or the House of Representatives, we’re not very popular bodies. And the reason we’re not very popular bodies is because of we do stuff like this. We take organizations like this that aren’t broken and break them,” Plummer said.

“These agencies have worked well for 45 years, and now because one political party wants more power than the other political party, we’re making these agencies suffer. It’s inappropriate.”

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.
  Comments