It was a memorable first day for Alex Clifford.
Metra's new executive director was introduced Tuesday, hours ahead of a major snowstorm bearing down on the Chicago area that has the commuter rail system operating in crisis mode.
"I had a chance yesterday to ... get a full briefing and see how this agency handles such storm events," Clifford said. "Now, I'm going to watch the plan be implemented and let it be one of my first reviews of the agency."
Clifford is a former division chief in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority system. He was hired by unanimous vote of Metra's 11-member board.
"His experience as a big-picture policymaker and a day-to-day operations manager make him uniquely qualified to lead Metra," said board chairwoman Carole Doris. "It is my belief that he is the right man for the job at the right time."
Clifford arrives at the agency as it struggles with its public image. Board members have made it clear to him that he is tasked with restoring the public's trust that was marred by the financial improprieties of the previous executive director.
"Reform is one of three key focus areas," he said. "Clearly, it's my belief we need to address the public's and the legislature's opinion of this agency."
Metra's former executive director, Phil Pagano, was accused of taking about $475,000 in unauthorized vacation pay over several years. Pagano later killed himself by stepping in front of an oncoming Metra train near his home in Crystal Lake as the allegations came to light.
Bankruptcy filings by Pagano's widow revealed that the former agency head was supporting two other households at the time of his death.
Clifford said part of restoring faith in the agency will be making the agency "as transparent as possible." He said the board is supportive of actions that will accomplish that.
Clifford comes to Metra after most recently serving as the Los Angeles agency's executive in charge of high-speed rail. He has held other posts with that agency and has worked in the private sector as well. He is a former Marine and was elected to two terms as a Riverside, Calif., city councilman. He has a master's degree in business administration from California Baptist University and a bachelor of science in business administration from California State Polytechnic University.
"I think it's a very unique set of skills that I have," he said.
Besides the reform aspect of his goals, Clifford said he will focus on passenger safety and satisfaction as well as fiscal responsibility. In a presentation to the board, Clifford outlined plans for each of those goals. He expects to survey users soon about the agency's operations to help provide better service. He also plans to audit the agency's financial checks and balances to make sure the agency's money is being properly utilized.
Clifford, who is 51 years old, will be earning an annual salary of $252,500, Metra officials said.