Wanted: a Metra chairman to deal with an enraged public, scant funding, bad publicity, a demoralized staff and skeletons waiting to jump out of the closet. Oh — and lawmakers might fire you within months of taking the job.
One name that's surfacing as a possible contender for the very hot seat is former Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder.
The position opened Thursday with the resignation of Brad O'Halloran of Orland Park. The former chairman was under fire over allegations made by ex-Metra CEO Alex Clifford that he supported political patronage demands by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, overstepped his authority and had conflicts of interest involving a banking contract.
Plans were underway to hold a board meeting next Friday with a possible vote on Mulder, but that fell through after Director Larry Huggins resigned, leaving the board with seven members. Four out of 11 directors have left recently, and eight votes are required to pick a chairman.
Asked if she would take the position, Mulder said, “I'd consider it.”
However, Vice Chairman Jack Partelow of Naperville “is doing a good job, and we can't do anything until we have eight people. So many things are fluid here,” she said.
The Metra board established a rotating chairmanship with Cook County directors and collar county directors taking turns to ensure regional equity. That would leave four directors from Cook County as candidates to fill the rest of O'Halloran's term: Mulder, South Holland Village President Don DeGraff, attorney William Widmer, and Stan Rakestraw, owner of a transit service that serves disabled riders.
Of the candidates, “some people just don't want to do it,” said Director Jack Schaffer, of Cary. He put Mulder on the shortlist, saying, “There's nobody on the board with more credibility.”
Right now, Mulder said, “we need to focus on keeping the operation running and making certain we're getting everything done to serve our riders.”
The scandal at Metra came to light when Clifford accused O'Halloran and Huggins of retaliating against him for rejecting pressure from Madigan and other politicians. That April 3 memo was kept under wraps until a much-criticized $718,000 separation agreement with Clifford approved in June caught the attention of lawmakers and the RTA, which held hearings in July.
The agreement was characterized as “hush money” and a “golden parachute” by some.
Mulder disagrees, calling it “a very difficult vote” but adding that “it was a financial decision.”
“I didn't want to spend that amount of money, but the lawyers working for Metra and the board members with law degrees said knowing the players involved, this could go on and be three times more costly (than settling),” she said.
The April 3 memo was the first time she'd heard of Clifford's ethics charges, Mulder said. Clifford has said he informed the board in executive session about his concerns.
Although Schaffer thinks O'Halloran had an agenda to get rid of Clifford and cast the one “no” vote against the separation agreement, he doesn't hold Mulder's “yes” vote against her.
Asked whom she believes in the game of he-said/he-said, Mulder said she is awaiting the results of investigations by the state Office of the Executive Inspector General and the legislative inspector general.
“I've learned not to judge people on one or two pieces of evidence. And because these are things I had no prior knowledge of, it's difficult to have an opinion. Speculation only gets you into trouble,” Mulder said.
O'Halloran and Huggins have denied any wrongdoing. O'Halloran blamed Clifford, Schaffer and a “media and political frenzy” for his departure, and he said the April 3 memo “misrepresented or outright invented supposed conversations (Clifford) claims to have had with me.”
Mulder said board directors spent hours trying to find the right blend of “integrity and knowledge” to replace former CEO Phil Pagano, who committed suicide in 2010 amid a financial scandal.
“It's very disappointing things didn't work out,” she said.
Some lawmakers, including state Rep. Jack Franks of Marengo, are calling for wholesale change in Metra organization and leadership.
Mulder, a retired teacher, served as Arlington Heights mayor for 20 years and was appointed to Metra in 2005.
Despite calls from lawmakers for her and her colleagues to resign, Mulder said she had no intention of stepping down and hopes the reconstituted board can build a consensus.
“It may not be unanimous, but we need to move forward in a positive way and re-establish our real goal — serving our riders.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.