Not right time for new Metra chairman

Every railroad needs to operate on schedule, right Metra riders? If the timetable says departure is at 8:15 and arrival is 8:45, passengers expect Metra to stick to it. Doesn’t always happen, of course.

The commuter rail agency’s board has a policy that says that its chairmanship should operate on a schedule, too. That policy, adopted in 2012, requires that the leadership post be rotated every four years among the board members from Cook County, including Chicago, and the board members from one of the five other counties that Metra serves.

It’s kind of like a term limit. That policy was one of the first reforms to emerge from the Phil Pagano scandal, and was aimed at curbing the kind of one-man rule under which Metra operated for decades.

You remember Pagano? He was the autocratic executive director who committed suicide in 2010 after being caught stealing $475,000 in vacation pay and forging memos to cover it up.

For too long, Pagano ran Metra virtually unchallenged. Metra’s 11-member board of directors, comprised of political appointees hand-picked by the six county chairs and commissioners, gave him free rein. For most of this time, Metra’s chairman, from distant McHenry County, was Pagano’s enabler. Patronage was rife. Contracts went to pals. One board member went to prison.

Pagano’s unchecked greed exposed a glaring lack of oversight by Metra’s directors. An outraged public started paying attention, and the politicians – finally put in the spotlight themselves — began feeling the heat.

In 2011, Metra’s then-chairwoman, DuPage appointee Carole Doris, led the effort to bring in an outsider from California to be executive director. Former Marine Alex Clifford was going to clean up Pagano’s Dodge City.

Doris’ chairmanship days soon ended, however, and after spending a year of behind-the-scenes haggling, the politicians finally agreed in 2012 to give the chairmanship to a suburban Cook County Republican appointee, Brad O’Halloran.

It was a break with the past, for sure, but not a break from scandal. It wasn’t long before Metra blew up again. The new chairman soon became embroiled in a power struggle with Clifford. Less than a year later, O’Halloran induced Metra’s board to force out Clifford with a secret, six-figure severance package.

The hush-hush deal ignited the public’s outrage again. A memo written by Clifford prior to his June 21, 2013, ouster depicted a transit agency besieged by patronage and contract pressure. Among the allegations, Clifford wrote of rebuffing a raise for an ally of House Speaker Michael Madigan. A special task force later described Madigan as a “prominent participant” in patronage hiring at Metra.

Six Metra board members, including O’Halloran, resigned or were removed in the outcry.

After several more months of wrangling, the political powers agreed to install board newcomer Martin Oberman, a Rahm Emanuel appointee, as chairman in February 2014. The former independent Chicago alderman was “a leader for reform and accountability in government,” Emanuel noted.

By all accounts, turmoil at Metra finally subsided and the clean-up and transparency efforts initiated by Clifford resumed.

Some examples: During the Pagano era, Metra board meetings were perfunctory events. Board members discussed little publicly and questioned nothing. The one-page agendas were terse and uninformative. Pagano called the shots and did most of the talking.

These days, agendas run an inch thick with details and documentation. Under Oberman’s direction, meetings run for hours. Board members discuss the minutest detail (even to the point of tedium, some think). Single expenditures are frequently questioned. Every item is posted on Metra’s website.

Board members hold staff accountable, especially Don Orseno, Metra’s executive director/CEO.

Chicago transportation officials have been complaining for years about something called “state of good repair.” That’s jargon for keeping the equipment in good working order, with tracks and bridges well-maintained and safe. Metra’s needs total $11.7 billion over 10 years. Pushed by Oberman, Metra launched a long-term strategic funding plan, with clearly outlined fare hike proposals.

Also under Oberman, Metra has endeavored to catch up with the 21st century. It has partnered with the CTA and Pace to adopt mobile ticketing and Ventra. It’s trying to give Wi-Fi to passengers in a cost-effective way. It’s launched an evaluation of the fairness and effectiveness of Metra’s fare structure, which is ongoing.

Is patronage still alive at Metra? Oberman may have come up with one of the better wooden stakes to drive through its evil obermanheart. Under a policy the board enacted in 2014, every Metra official and employee is required to log any request or recommendation they receive on behalf of a job candidate. The log is a public record.

There have been other efforts at transparency and reform, and improving the agency overall. Certainly, other members of Metra’s board can share the credit. Anyone who watches the agency’s board meetings in person or on its webcasts (yes, it’s true) can identify directors like Norman Carlson, a railroad industry consultant by profession, as appearing especially conscientious and well-informed. Indeed, other board members admit they are dazzled by Carlson’s extensive knowledge and expertise. As Lake County’s representative on Metra’s board, Carlson could make an excellent chairman when the time comes, albeit without the public persona, communication flair and bow ties that Oberman displays.

Which brings us back to that notion of the Metra chairmanship’s four-year term limit. Under the 2012 policy, Cook County’s turn at the helm of Metra’s board should technically expire on Nov. 2, bringing Oberman’s term to an end.

One could make a legitimate argument, however, that O’Halloran’s fiasco of a chairmanship was a false start, so to speak. Oberman, who has been chairman for less than three years, should not be forced take a time penalty for his predecessor’s blundering. Oberman should be given an extension to his term in order to continue the reforms and endeavors he would like to complete.

Metra board members are expected to grapple with this issue when they meet Friday. Some board members say a policy’s a policy — especially a fair policy — and should transcend individuals. A one-year extension for Oberman would not violate this sound policy.

As history has shown, the county board chairmen and commissioners from the six counties are the true decision-makers. If there is ultimate accountability and commitment to improving Metra, it rests with them. They should remember Metra’s customers and taxpayers are still watching.

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