Metra facing more questions after Clifford's exit
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For the second time in three years, Metra faces a leadership void, questions about dubious spending, scrutiny by authorities and no one accepting blame for the dysfunction.
What else? Well ... there are chronic delays on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Line, slow progress on a universal fare card, confusion about providing Wi-Fi on trains, declining ridership and late audit reports earning the wrath of the RTA.
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With July 4 landing on Thursday, AAA predicts a dip in travelers this year. The agency anticipates 40.8 million Americans will take a trip in 2013 compared to 41 million in 2012, when Independence Day fell on a Wednesday, giving people a six-day holiday window.
It all came to a head on June 21. After weeks of tension and closed-door negotiations, Metra directors voted to approve a separation agreement with CEO Alex Clifford.
The deal gave Clifford $442,000 outright — a combination of salary, severance pay, benefits and moving expenses. He will collect more if he doesn't get a new job during a specified time or takes one that pays less than his $252,000-a-year Metra position.
In the end, Clifford could collect as much as $749,000.
Reaction to the deal was strong — especially in light of two fare hikes, one in 2012 and one in February.
"Metra riders ought to be infuriated following a fare increase and all of the incredible increases in delays, especially on the BNSF, over this enormously large package a person who barely got the seat warm in his short stay as executive director of Metra received," summed up state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.
The agreement also contains a gag order, stating neither Clifford nor Metra officials can talk about the settlement.
Clifford's three-year contract ended in February 2014, and talks with board directors about renewal started earlier this year.
But discussions were not warm or fuzzy. In fact, they went so badly attorneys got involved, and avoiding an expensive lawsuit became part of the rationale for the golden parachute.
It "became important to resolve such legal disputes so that Metra can move forward with a clean slate and avoid wasting time and money on attorneys. As with all legal disputes which Metra resolves through a settlement, I am not going to get into the details of each side's arguments," Chairman Brad O'Halloran said in a statement.
Officials have confirmed that during conversations between Clifford and individual board directors, allegations concerning potential hiring improprieties surfaced. Board members turned the issue over to the Illinois executive inspector general, whose staff is now investigating and conducting interviews.
The severance package contains assurances from each side neither will sue.
It's a messy exit, especially since Metra's been at pains to clean up its image after the suicide of former CEO and consummate railroader Phil Pagano in 2010 amid a probe into his swindling more than $475,000 in unauthorized pay.
Clifford, a former transit executive from Los Angeles, was heralded as a reformer when he started, although some questioned his lack of direct experience with commuter railroads.
O'Halloran, who did not return phone calls, didn't talk about specific performance issues in explaining the board's actions. Instead, he said the agency needed a new leader who could build consensus with lawmakers, regulators and other transit agencies to scoop up funding.
So far, the move has gone over like a lead balloon with House lawmakers like Marengo Democrat Jack Franks and Arlington Heights Republican David Harris.
"I don't want them to come down asking for more money," Harris told the Daily Herald.
Likewise, Dillard called the deal outrageous. "I want an executive director who knows how to run a railroad literally and is concerned with safety of the riders," he said. "The executive director should be a railroad person, not a politician."
But some Metra officials probably are still reeling from the 2012 memory of a board room filled with angry South Side congressmen and residents accusing them of excluding black contractors from the lucrative Englewood flyover project, a railroad bridge.
That signaled an end to the honeymoon period Clifford enjoyed with the board, although he was always mindful of what his bosses were up to, as an early email indicates.
"Please remind your team members that when contact is made from a board member, I should be immediately notified," he wrote senior managers in an October 2011 email. "This is a directive. We had a violation of this directive this week. We need to ensure we are all in alignment with this directive. Unless the request is a simple question or request for readily available information, the most prudent path is to ask the board member to contact me directly for assistance."
Clifford said in an email he couldn't comment on his departure because of the confidentiality agreement. He said regarding the October 2011 memo, he required staff members contacted directly by board members to immediately answer their questions and send them any documents that were readily available. "For anything else, I have always insisted that my staff immediately turn the request over to me so I can ensure the right staff members are assigned the task in an effort to ensure that the board member's request is handled in a proper and expeditious manner," he said. "It has always been my policy to be as responsive as possible to my 11 bosses."
Increasingly in 2012 and into 2013, Clifford came under tough questioning about delays implementing Wi-Fi on trains, a drop in 10-ride ticket purchases after a 2013 fare increase and a slow transition to a new, universal fare system that Pace and the CTA are rolling out this summer.
Clifford also was lambasted over a compensation study that increased a majority of nonunion employees' salaries, which some directors thought was unfair to those who didn't get raises. The Regional Transportation Authority also piled on last week, scolding the agency for its tardiness in missing the deadline to submit an audit.
"Alex had strong skills; he was not adept at some of the railroad stuff," former Arlington Heights Mayor and Metra Director Arlene Mulder said.
Director Jack Schaffer of Cary, who championed Clifford, fears his departure is a power grab by O'Halloran and marks the advent of political influence and patronage at the agency.
"I'm afraid the new direction is an old direction," he said.
For now, Chief Operating Officer/Deputy Executive Director Don Orseno, a Metra veteran and experienced railroader, and newcomer Deputy Executive Director of Administration Alex Wiggins, a former transportation administrator in Seattle and Oceanside, Calif., are running the show.
Mulder noted that shared leadership doesn't always work but she's willing to wait and see. "We should give them a chance; each is good in their field," she said.
Schaffer wants the agency to conduct a search for a successor, albeit an inexpensive one.
Director Mike McCoy of Aurora said, "I'd like to think we could build a staff from within. I have a lot of confidence in the staff members who survived the Pagano and Clifford eras. It's a really good team."
Got any thoughts on Metra's situation? I'd love to hear them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Milwaukee West Line rider James Costas thinks the severance deal "stinks."
"Metra is a mess! They need a leader from Chicago, who knows Chicago, and how to schedule trains to better serve the masses of people," he writes. "Our city hosts many world-class events downtown yet getting to and from the events via Metra can be a challenge. When the Chicago Bears are playing a night game, there isn't a special train or a schedule change to accommodate the fans. During the summer, when Navy Pier has its Saturday night fireworks displays, which start at 10:15 p.m., it's either miss the display to catch the 10:40 p.m. train home or see the display and wait to catch the 12:40 a.m. train home. How about a special summer train or Bears train at 11:40 p.m.? That would make too much sense!
"By filling the needs of the people who want to use Metra I believe ridership would increase."
This will hurt for drivers near O'Hare. Bridge replacement and intersection improvements at Route 171 (Cumberland Avenue) over I-90 are under way and will last until Oct. 31. The work stretches from Catherine Street to Peterson Avenue and means lane reductions in each direction.
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