Metra board living on the edge [Chicago Tribune]
(Chicago Tribune (IL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 18--After whipping through the roll call at Friday's Metra meeting, the board secretary announced a quorum existed.
"Thank God," quipped acting Chairman Jack Partelow, drawing laughter and knowing looks from the audience.
Roll call long has been a perfunctory and overlooked task at the commuter rail agency, but a wave of resignations in recent weeks has left the board with the bare minimum needed to hold meetings or perform basic functions. If just one member falls ill or cannot attend, the board's entire operation will come to an abrupt halt.
It's against this backdrop that Metra is trying to recover from a political scandal that ignited two months ago when the board approved a $718,000, no-tell severance package for then-CEO Alex Clifford. The controversy has spurred the resignations of five board members, including Chicago businessman Stanley Rakestraw, who stepped down last week after the Tribune raised questions about his eligibility to serve.
The departure leaves the board with just six members, who now must reach unanimous agreement in order to perform an array of tasks, including approving budgets or even imposing new rules regarding bikes on trains. It does not have the supermajority of eight members legally required for significant actions, such as hiring a new executive director or even selecting a chairman.
The situation has become so precarious that Regional Transportation Authority Chairman John Gates Jr. has publicly called on Metra's appointing authorities to address the five empty seats immediately, and at least one county board chairman has changed his timetable for filling a vacancy.
"This is a very challenging time for the region's transit system, and the system must be able to continue to provide service and safety to 2 million daily riders," Gates said.
Metra's problems began in April when Clifford wrote a biting eight-page memo that accused board members of retaliating against him because he refused to capitulate to patronage demands placed on the agency. The allegations prompted Metra to negotiate a severance package paying him nearly three times his annual salary -- a settlement that some called "hush money."
Clifford's allegations also sparked a political firestorm that has led to the resignations and investigations centered on his claims that he was ousted because he refused Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan's requests to award a pay raise to a Madigan political supporter. The speaker has acknowledged seeking the favor, though he rejected Clifford's claims that there was any political pressure.
Metra attorneys have denied Clifford's accusations, insisting he leveled patronage claims only after learning his contract might not be renewed and that the severance package was cheaper than the cost of a whistle-blower lawsuit.
Former Chairman Brad O'Halloran and board member Larry Huggins, who were both criticized in Clifford's memorandum, later resigned amid heavy criticism. Board members Paul Darley, of DuPage County, and Mike McCoy, of Kane County, also stepped down even though they were not accused of promoting political back-scratching at the agency.
DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin initially indicated he would hold off on naming Darley's replacement until after the state executive inspector general finished his investigation. He changed his position last week, however, after quorum concerns arose and politicians began pushing to revamp how the system's transit agencies operate.
"I'm trying to be very careful and judicious and deliberate about this, but I do think it's time I get somebody here, maybe just on an interim basis," Cronin said. "It's got to be the right person -- (a person) that not only has great business savvy skills, but also understands the political agendas and regional politics."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who appoints Chicago's representative on the Metra board, has indicated he would like to name a replacement before next month's council meeting.
The Cook County Board must approve any candidates tapped to fill its two vacancies. The vote, which requires a prior public hearing, cannot be held before the October County Board meeting, at the earliest.
Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman, who appointed O'Halloran to the Metra board, said she doesn't anticipate settling on a potential replacement until after Labor Day. She predicted a long vetting process, if she can find someone willing to accept the job amid a political firestorm.
Kane County Chairman Chris Lauzen, who will pick McCoy's replacement, last month said he would have a "methodical and transparent" selection process. A short time later, his representative to the RTA board was asked to step down amid concerns he can't legally serve both on the transit agency and a state commission, leaving Lauzen with two transit vacancies to fill.
In the meantime, the six remaining Metra board members will continue to make decisions and hold meetings as their numbers allow, Partelow said.
"We can only do what we can," he said. "And what we can do is keep the railroad running."
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