Updated: August 9, 2013 6:24AM
So-called “golden parachutes” may ensure soft, comfortable landings for high-level officials as they float down from lofty government jobs, but those excessive severance packages drop like lead balloons on the backs of taxpayers who get crushed by the cost.
Big bye-bye bonuses are especially offensive when the beneficiaries have been generously compensated and sufficiently coddled in their executive positions.
The latest extravaganza, replete with a “gag order” so the participants can’t discuss it publicly, is the Metra board’s departure deal with chief executive Alex Clifford, which could end up costing taxpayers and riders more than $750,000.
That puts Clifford in the top tier of the “Golden Parachute Hall of Shame,” next to Wayne Watson, who walked away from an arguably unsuccessful stewardship of the City Colleges of Chicago with nearly $800,000 in accumulated perks, benefits and wet kisses.
How many times do we have to remind these people this isn’t the private sector, where strong profits and higher share prices may entitle an outgoing CEO to a sizeable severance package from a grateful board of directors?
This is government, where we, the taxpayers, pay for the programs and services we want and need.
We’re willing to compensate public officials fairly for the jobs they do on our behalf, including the retirement benefits they’ve earned, but not lavish severance agreements.
Here are a few of the other egregious exits the Better Government Association has uncovered in recent years and what followed our disclosures:
Robert Healy, who ran the Lyons Township School Treasurer’s office, gave himself a $500,000 sendoff by cashing in supposedly unused sick, vacation and personal days. That deal is now under investigation.
Former Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan got a $50,000 check for unused sick days when he decamped to Washington, D.C., as President Barack Obama’s federal education czar. The school board canceled the sick-day payout policy last year, but Arne hasn’t returned the money.
Former Oak Brook Police Chief Thomas Sheahan profited from a quietly crafted state law that boosted his pension by $32,000 a year. Oak Brook is asking state lawmakers to undo the deal.
And former Lansing police Cmdr. Jerry Zeldenrust got a $26,000 raise on his last day on the job, which boosted his annual pension by $19,000 per year. That was part of Lansing’s plan to save money short term by sweetening the pensions of highly paid veteran cops and firemen so they’d retire and be replaced by low-salary rookies. But that created a multimillion-dollar, long-term pension liability, so Lansing canceled the program.
These retirement ripoffs are probably just the tip of the iceberg — scams we discovered based on tips and leads.
Imagine how many more of our tax dollars have been dispensed as farewell gifts to public officials without our knowledge because no one was watching or blowing the whistle.
At least the financial details of Alex Clifford’s “resignation” deal have been made public, if not the machinations, and its audacity is sparking investigations along with outrage, which is good.
But let’s take it a step further by considering a state law that prohibits or at least caps expensive “golden parachutes” for departing public officials.
Because if anyone deserves a soft, comfortable landing it’s us — the taxpayers.
Andy Shaw is president and chief executive of the Better Government Association.
He can be reached at email@example.com or (312) 386-9097.