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Article updated: 8/5/2013 5:26 AM

Can Metra board function under duress?

Daily Herald File Photo
 Metra riders can expect the unexpected in the coming weeks with calls for board resignations and ongoing investigations.

Daily Herald File Photo Metra riders can expect the unexpected in the coming weeks with calls for board resignations and ongoing investigations.

 
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With just seven Metra directors left out of 11, shouldn't the endangered remainder just resign en masse? After all, they lack the required eight votes to hire a new CEO or pick a chairman, and critics blame them for the latest scandal smearing the agency.

Reports of the board's death are greatly exaggerated, says Jack Partelow, who assumed the unenviable role of acting Metra chairman Thursday when his embattled predecessor, Brad O'Halloran, resigned.

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"The idea of the entire board stepping down is ridiculous," said Partelow, a retired Dunn and Bradstreet executive from Naperville.

The low-key Partelow steps into the breach as Metra teeters on the brink -- rocked by corruption allegations surrounding O'Halloran and Director Larry Huggins.

Are things really that bad? you ask.

Well, the RTA is auditing an up-to-$718,000 separation agreement bestowed on former CEO Alex Clifford that's been called "hush money." Two state inspectors general are investigating Clifford's claims O'Halloran and Huggins tried to oust him when he rejected pressure over promotions and raises from House Speaker Michael Madigan. Board directors are jumping ship left and right. Lawmakers are fuming and want the board members' heads on a platter.

Oh, and there are delays on the BNSF, a furor over fare increases, no funding, and little progress on Wi-Fi on trains or a universal fare system.

He may not have eight votes, but seven directors remain -- for now. Far from being a body of lame ducks, the board is needed now more than ever, and is relevant, Partelow thinks.

For starters, he wants to revisit an unpopular 11 percent hike on 10-ride passes, instituted just a year after a 28 percent across-the-board increase.

"It cost us money and prestige and it cost us riders," Partelow said.

Unlike O'Halloran, who was in favor of indefinitely running Metra with two chiefs -- Deputy Executive Director for Operations Don Orseno and Deputy Executive Director for Administration Alex Wiggins -- Partelow thinks "one guy should run the agency."

State law requires eight votes to name a CEO; however, former RTA Chief Steve Schlickman, who heads up the University of Illinois at Chicago's Urban Transportation Center, said the board arguably could pick an "interim" CEO with just seven directors.

As for the drumbeat to hire an investigator to review the misconduct charges, Partelow again takes the opposite view of O'Halloran, who tried to hire famed prosecutor Patrick Collins to clear the air.

"To be against another investigation is like being against motherhood," Partelow said, "but there's investigations going on all over the place ... the inspector general, the RTA. How many of these things do we need? We've got other things to spend our money on."

Speaking of money, it will be interesting to see if, sans O'Halloran, directors turn off the spending spigot for the army of PR consultants and lawyers he assembled for damage control.

"We should pull the plug on all that spending," said Jack Schaffer, the one board member to vote against Clifford's separation agreement.

But Schaffer, a former state senator from Cary, is the first to admit that the board's situation is precarious.

"We're all rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Schaffer, explaining the completion of the executive inspector general's report could result in more skeletons falling out of Metra's closet.

If state Rep. Jack Franks has his way, the entire board would resign and be replaced by an emergency manager.

The situation's so grave, it requires Gov. Pat Quinn to call a special session of the General Assembly, the Marengo Democrat said. "We're in a crisis and we need to re-establish control," he said.

State Rep. David Harris, who called for O'Halloran's resignation, thinks the chairman's exit and Huggins' resignation Friday (with an assist from Mayor Rahm Emanuel) remove the stigma from the rest of the board.

"The two lightning rods are gone. Now there's an opportunity to make a positive impact," the Arlington Heights Republican said.

The way Springfield works, Harris added, reforming Metra won't happen overnight. Instead, the remaining board members should serve out their terms but not be reappointed, he said.

In the meantime, the powers that be who appoint Metra directors should find replacements expeditiously, Harris said. Also resigning in July were two directors regarded as independent voices -- Elmhurst businessman Paul Darley and Aurora's Mike McCoy, an engineer and former Kane County chairman.

DuPage Chairman Dan Cronin is responsible for finding Darley's successor but said he was "in no hurry to make an appointment," given that investigations are ongoing and resolutions are on the table to reform the transit agency. In addition, "I don't know a lot of people who want the job right now," Cronin added.

We'll give the counterpoint to Schlickman.

"We have the city of Chicago, DuPage and Kane without representation on the Metra board -- that's a big swath of the region's populous not represented," Schlickman said. "It's urgent to act as quickly as they can ... to find someone qualified."

Big mistake, says Franks, who calls the current system of RTA and Metra appointments made by a mixture of county chairman, the Chicago mayor and Cook County Board leaders "government by cronyism."

In the meantime, Partelow said his colleagues are talented individuals who need to build morale at an agency suffering from what he characterized as "lethargy" in the wake of continued crises.

One more thing

Why did Partelow support the separation agreement?

"It was a business decision," Partelow said. "Our lawyers were telling us (a lawsuit) could cost $2 million to $3 million. Our decision was between $700,000 or up to $2 million or $3 million bucks."

Partelow also said the first time he heard Clifford's allegations was in April, which differs from the former CEO's account of informing board members about political pressure in 2012.

"If (Clifford) thought something was wrong, he should have said something to the board immediately," Partelow said. "He should have said, 'they're leaning on me to do political hiring.' The implication is the board terminated him or accepted his resignation because he wouldn't accede to Mike Madigan. I'm a Republican -- why would I be taking action to further Mike Madigan's demands?"

Your voice

Here's what Wally Degner of Palatine had to say about the situation.

"There is also no law against recommending a friend for a government job. Happens all the time. Apparently Mr. Clifford declined to act on the recommendation. This is no grounds to fire him for listening to the recommendation. I am very disappointed that the Metra board, which has several former mayors and other former government officials, voted, except for Jack Schaffer, to approve the severance agreement. Except for Jack Schaffer, the entire board should resign or be fired."

Got a comment on Metra or any other transportation issue? Drop me a line at mpyke@dailyherald.com

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