Filing out of a closed-door meeting without comment, Metra board directors were publicly silent Friday about the future of CEO Alex Clifford's contract.
Clifford is in the last year of a three-year contract and officials have confirmed some directors are less than thrilled with his performance.
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Metra Director Mike McCoy, former Kane County Board Chairman, indicated after the meeting that the board had been on a path to re-evaluate Clifford with a good likelihood of renewing his contract when the process derailed. The disconnect came during individual meetings Clifford held with board members to discuss his future, McCoy said.
"Some things arose out of the individual meetings causing us to re-evaluate where we are," McCoy said.
At the same time, Clifford has a number of supporters on the 11-person board, including Jack Schaffer of Cary who called him a "straight shooter" whose leadership had been "inspired" at times.
Clifford said he had no comment and Metra Chief Communications Officer Robert Carlton said the administration could not speak about personnel matters.
The uncertainty over the contract comes as Metra faces scrutiny from the state Office of the Executive Inspector General over allegations of hiring or personnel improprieties. Carlton said Metra could not comment on an ongoing investigation.
Despite the somber tone of the meeting, its conclusion had a somewhat farcical end as confusion reigned over whether directors had properly adjourned. Several officials grabbed elevators, explaining the board had adjourned when it went into executive session at the start of the meeting. Metra lawyers later admitted the board had "recessed" into executive session, which did require a vote on adjournment in public session. At that point, however, there wasn't a quorum, which automatically led to an adjournment.
Although Chairman Brad O'Halloran declined to answer reporters' questions, Schaffer and Director Arlene Mulder, outgoing Arlington Heights mayor, confirmed there had been a lot of discussion behind closed doors and assured riders the system was in good shape.
"The trains are running on time," Mulder said.
"There isn't anyone who doesn't want the customers well-served and safe," Schaffer said.
Clifford joined Metra under difficult circumstances.
Former CEO Phil Pagano killed himself in spring 2010 amid an investigation that revealed he took more than $475,000 in unauthorized pay.
After arriving at Metra, Clifford promised to continue reforms instituted by the board and bring in a new era of transparency.
But his two years have involved controversy over instituting two fare increases and pushback from South Side lawmakers and residents that a contract for a railway bridge ignored minority businesses.
A leadership vacuum would come at a bad time for Metra as the clock is ticking on 2015 deadlines to fulfill a state requirement to transition to a universal fare card and a federal law mandating that railroads install positive train control, an accident-warning system.
Picking another CEO could be pricey, also. Metra paid railroad expert Avery Grimes $337,000 in 2011 to assist Clifford in transitioning and reorganizing the agency.
Clifford, 53, earns a salary of $252,500 a year.