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November 27, 2017

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

‘Friends’ not just a TV show

It’s not just the big shots who try to game the state’s hiring rules. So do the little shots.

Should two lifelong friends participate in a supposedly unbiased job interview — one answering the questions while the other scores the responses and makes recommendations on who gets hired.

Unquestionably, no.

Even in the unlikely event that everything is conducted on the up and up, it looks indefensibly bad to those concerned about the appearance, as well as the reality, of impropriety.

But that’s what happened at the Illinois Department of Transportation in 2014, when longtime Illinois Department of Transportation supervisor Laura Campbell participated in a job interview with her neighbor and longtime close friend, Paul Lee.

Lee — wonder of wonders — got the job. But in an even greater surprise, Campbell was sanctioned with a 30-day suspension for her egregiously bad judgment as well as her lack of candor about what transpired when investigators began their inquiries.

The facts here are too weird to believe. But it just goes to show that the large-scale illegal hiring conspiracy at IDOT led by top officials of former Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration isn’t all the public has to worry about.

People love to put their fingers on the scale, particularly if they personally benefit from the influence-peddling and almost as much if they can do a special favor for a family member or friend.

Here’s what happened, according to a report filed recently by the state’s Executive Office of Inspector General.

Lee, who was retired from his job at Archer Daniels Midland as a vehicle coordinator, was contacted by his neighbor, Campbell, who was aware that IDOT was looking to hire someone to fill a fleet management assistant’s job.

She not only told Lee she thought he’d be “good for the job” but brought him a job application to fill out. After filling it out, Lee returned the application to Campbell to file on his behalf.

When it came time for the job interview, Campbell was among a panel of IDOT employees interviewing Lee, who was scored as the top candidate among 65 applicants.

Well, maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t.

About a year later, the inspector general received an anonymous complaint about the monkey business in the hiring process. An investigation ensued.

Campbell’s defense was that she told her co-interviewers that she knew Lee but didn’t realize it would look bad if she was among those who interviewed him.

Campbell’s co-interviewers said they didn’t recall much about the Lee interview, but they were unaware Campbell and Lee were friends. If they had known, they said, they would have arranged for an interviewer other than Campbell to participate in the Lee interview.

While insisting that she could fairly consider the job applicants, Campbell acknowledged to investigators that, looking back in hindsight, she understood how “her interview of Mr. Lee could be perceived as a conflict of interest” and that she should have avoided the appearance of impropriety. But she said she was “infuriate(d) to my core” that investigators concluded that she was untruthful when she said she told her co-interviewers that she knew Lee.

She suggested her two co-interviewers were out to get her, described herself as a model employee with an “unblemished” record and “exemplary evaluations” and said she could have avoided the problem entirely if IDOT had a specific rule that friends couldn’t interview friends for positions in the department.

So, once again, it’s clear that many people do not think the rules — whether written or just plain common sense — do not apply to them. It’s the “I’m-a-good-person-and-I-can-do-whatever-I-think-is-appropriate” defense.

But it’s not a defense, and it didn’t apply to Campbell. But don’t worry about her. At 52, she’s retired from her $83,800 job at IDOT after a 34-year career but back on the IDOT payroll under a contract arrangement that pays her $45 an hour.


November 26, 2017

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

Southern Illinois has too much potential to wither away

During the course of a boxing match, a fighter will deliver dozens of body blows to his or her opponent.

It’s unlikely that any of the punches will be decisive. But, fighters count on the cumulative effect of these blows to weaken, and eventually, topple their opponent.

Southern Illinois took another body blow last week when Honeywell announced it would idle its Metropolis plant, stripping the Massac County facility of 170 full-time jobs and dozens of related contract positions.

That’s a serious body blow to a community of 6,500 people.

And, it’s just the latest serious hit Southern Illinois has taken over the last decade or so.

It wasn’t long ago the region boasted of a wealth of coal mining jobs. Hardin County had fluorspar mines. The farmland in parts of the region is rich and fertile.

Economic conditions have gone south in recent years. Some of the coal veins played out. The move away from coal-fired power plants hastened the shuttering of other facilities. The increasing mechanization of the coal industry chewed up other jobs.

More frequent flooding of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, once two of the greatest economic engines of Southern Illinois, further staggered the region. Parts of Pulaski County, covered with sand deposited by the flooding rivers, now look more like a desert than a rich farming community.

The aforementioned economic calamities have weakened the region, as body blows are intended to do.

The signs are everywhere. Probably the most telling, the region has lost 11,000 people since 2000. Nine of the southernmost counties in Illinois rank in the top 10 in the number of opioid prescriptions per person in the state. In five school districts in the region 10 percent of students are considered homeless.

The poverty rate in some counties exceeds that of Appalachia. The most adversely affected counties are those that border the Ohio River — Gallatin, Hardin, Pope, Massac, Alexander and Pulaski.

“In that area you have the worst rural poverty in the state, without question,” said Christopher Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University.

That assessment doesn’t leave a lot of room for argument.

Admittedly a bit wobbly in the knees, Southern Illinois is still standing. Southern Illinoisans have proven time and again we are a resilient lot.

“This part of Illinois has too much potential to wither into oblivion,” said Rhonda Belford, president of the Ohio River Scenic Byway in Illinois.

We agree. But, it is time for the region to quit wringing its hands. The region can no longer wait for the state and federal government to assist. There is a need for a real grassroots movement, a movement that is blind to Republican, Democrat, liberal and conservative labels, a movement that is oblivious to parochial measures. This is a small region. What is good for one of us is good for all of us. A movement whose only ideology is the survival of Southern Illinois.

It is time to quit hoping that extraction industries will pull the region out of the cycle of poverty. Leaders of school districts, communities and counties must make their voices heard, formulate an outline for economic growth.

Belford is right. Southern Illinois has too much potential to wither away. The people are one of the major resources. There is a ready and able labor pool for businesses that choose to locate here. Figures show there is plenty of real estate available. And, most of Southern Illinois is easily accessible by interstate highways.

The key to our success as a region is from bottom up, not from top down.


November 23, 2017

Shaw Media

Support local businesses this holiday season

This holiday season, smart shoppers will make a point to make as many purchases as they can at local small businesses.

Sure, the deals offered by big-box retailers on Black Friday are enticing. The ascendant online retail giants will be making deals on Cyber Monday, available by simply pulling a device out of your pocket or turning on your computer.

But a great percentage of money that consumers spend on those days will leave the community, never to return.

And the items they buy will likely be mass produced, the same stuff you can get anywhere.

There are a lot of compelling reasons to visit local retailers, both on Small Business Saturday, throughout the holiday shopping season, and really, all year round.

For one, these businesses are often run by our neighbors, and their presence in town is part of what makes the area unique.

A shopper who seeks out local small businesses likely has access to unique offerings. They can get advice from people who likely are experts on what they’re selling, with knowledge and passion for the wares available – that’s likely why they took the risk of opening a store in the first place.

There’s also no better way consumers can support their community and local economy than by shopping at local small businesses.

Numerous economic studies have shown that a far greater percentage of every dollar spent at an independently owned local store stays in the local community than that spent with chain retailers. Almost none of the money spent at online retailers remains in the community.

If the people on your list this holiday season live near you but don’t really “need” anything, consider gift cards at local restaurants or other businesses that you know they enjoy.

Healthy communities depend on healthy economies, and small businesses are the backbone of local economies. They spend their money to employ people, as well as support other local businesses and make charitable donations.

Consumers are catching on to this reality. In 2016, an estimated 112 million customers reported shopping at small businesses on Small Business Saturday, a 13 percent increase over 2015, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

So if you’ll be buying gifts this holiday season, please brave the elements and do your part to support the businesswomen and men in your community.