Friday, August 30, 2013

The METRA Train Wreck -- taxpayers deserve a clean slate

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The METRA Train Wreck -- taxpayers deserve a clean slate 

Last week, four Cook County commissioners called for the remaining members of the METRA Board to resign from office. With the resignation of Brad O'Halloran as METRA's Chairman, and the nearly $1 million gold parachute given to its former CEO Alex Clifford, who has been on a political vendetta to punish his critics, METRA is a train wreck.

The four Cook County Commissioners making the call are Elizabeth “Liz” Doody Gorman, Gregg Goslin, Timothy O. Schneider and Peter N. Silvestri. They have sponsored a resolution requesting the remaining three Metra board members representing Cook County to immediately resign from the METRA Board. Those board members who should resign are the three remaining suburban Cook County METRA Board members: Don De Graff, Arlene Mulder and William Widmer III.

With METRA tasked with running one of the largest metropolitan rail systems in the country the commissioners made it clear that the ongoing controversy and public anger over Clifford's bailout package requires a clean slate to regain the confidence of the public.

The resolution calls for the three Cook County METRA board members to continue to serve at the pleasure of the Cook County Suburban Caucus until suitable replacements are selected. This timeframe will allow for a quorum to be maintained and ensure that Metra’s day to day operations continue to run uninterrupted.

“The replacement of the present METRA directors will be a transparent and deliberate process in which we will seek the highest quality candidates that will complement one another and bring a variety of skills to the board of this large public business,” said Commissioner Goslin. Five of 11 METRA Board members have resigned since the Clifford controversy exploded, including former chair O’Halloran and board member Larry Huggins. There are only three left,

The commissioners cited the public’s suspicion and skepticism as more allegations surface which makes it nearly impossible for the remaining METRA board members to continue in their positions with any public confidence. The recent report by the RTA Board highlighted the commissioners’ deep concern when it revealed that the METRA Board failed to consider the Employment Practices Liability insurance which would’ve provided coverage if a lawsuit was filed by former METRA CEO Alex Clifford.

Commissioner Schneider stated, “After careful thought and investigation, this resolution provides accountability while ensuring that day to day operations at METRA are left undisturbed. We can now begin to rebuild the leadership structure at METRA and regain the public’s confidence in their commuter rail system.” Commissioner Silvestri added, “The facts are in from the RTA and the State. It’s time to move forward with a new board.”

The resolution also urges the METRA Board to take no substantive action regarding the hiring of a new CEO or appointment of a Board Chairperson until all remaining METRA board members have been replaced and a new full eleven-person METRA Board has been seated.

“I agree with my fellow commissioners that a clean start is needed to restore the public’s confidence in METRA. I would hope we can have an entirely new METRA Board in place by the start of 2014,” stated Commissioner Gorman.


A day didn't pass after the four commissioners urged the resignations that a new explosive scandal emerged, disclosed by CRAINS Chicago Business reporter Greg Hinz, who disclosed that Clifford had been given proprietary information in an email from another board member, Jack Schaffer, who has been the most vocal critic of alleged impropriety on the METRA Board. Now, he is the focus of one of the worst scandals.

According to the media reports, Schaffer acknowledged that he sent Clifford an email with a confidential memo from METRA's attorneys about three weeks before Clifford wrote a scathing memo alleging that two other board members engaged in political back-scratching. The Clifford accusations led to him receiving an $871,000 separation agreement. Five board members have since resigned in protest, and two ethics investigations have begun.

METRA has never done a good job of fulfilling its mandate to provide transportation services to the suburban region. It has been choked with controversy going back to when Phil Pagano committed suicide in 2010. Until then, no one suspected Pagano or anyone of doing anything wrong at METRA. They just shrugged their shoulders that the transportation agency was terrible at providing transportation. Turns out that Pagano was giving himself bonuses without resigning. But when his practices came under investigation, he committed suicide, driving the METRA agency into a rock slide of trouble.

Given all this history, Gorman's call for a fresh start at METRA takes on new urgency.

The tragedy is that O'Halloran walked into a hornet's nest of garbage, believing wrongly that the train wreck could be averted. He was wrong. Rather than suffer through the continued attacks -- most of them politically motivated -- he decided to step down.

Clifford, on the other hand, wants to come back. That would be the worst thing METRA could do. Maybe they should try to get the taxpayers money back and closely examine the details of Schaffer's conduct. Critics charge that by giving Clifford inside information, he was able to leverage that to get the massive buyout. Schaffer should resign immediately, too.