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posted: 10/3/2013 8:38 AM

Editorial: Improve RTA's image? Bring PR work in-house

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Just as Metra, the region's commuter rail agency, tries to shore up its battered image by holding transparent, public interviews of new board members, the agency that oversees all transit issues in the region has questions to answer about its image control.

Metra's board has been under fire for months after its former CEO accused some board directors, since resigned, of misconduct. The accusations came after that former CEO was awarded a separation agreement worth up to $718,000. In total, five directors have resigned and this week public interviews were held for open positions.

That's a good first step. And it shouldn't have cost thousands of dollars to figure out that it was a good idea. That kind of thinking and spending, however, seems to be prevalent at the Regional Transportation Authority, which is the oversight agency for Metra, the CTA and Pace.

Transportation writer Marni Pyke detailed in Monday's Daily Herald how the RTA spent more than $670,000 since 2011 on outside communications firms. This at a time when Metra, Pace and the CTA together face a $30 billion-plus infrastructure shortfall.

RTA Communications Director Susan Massel, who is paid $96,000, told Pyke in an email that the work goes "beyond the capacity of the RTA's two-person communication department."

Hmmm. Let's forget for a moment that several of these outside firms are politically connected to the Madigan family. Let's just focus on the statement above and what these firms actually did.

One of the firms rewrote and redesigned the RTA Fact Book, a 24-page book that gives details on what the RTA is, an overview of its financials, projects it is working on and the importance of transit. That firm, hired in March 2011, was paid $45,000 in a no-bid contract for five months that included the fact book rewrite.

A second firm was hired in November of 2011. Also a no-bid contract, also for $45,000, this time for three months. And what was among its duties? Editing and designing that same fact book.

Money was also spent on writing a speech for the RTA chairman and positioning him as the "lead individual voice" of transit in the region.

Even greater sums of money were spent with other PR firms to handle media calls and prepare talking points for the RTA on the Metra scandal and to organize a national campaign on the importance of transit that seems to duplicate work already done elsewhere.

Republicans and Democrats alike told Pyke the spending is "superfluous" and an "abuse of taxpayers' money."

We agree. Before it spends another dime on outside PR, the RTA needs to explain fully -- perhaps to the task force looking into Metra issues that includes former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald -- what these firms got paid for, why contracts were awarded to politically connected firms and how they will reduce this kind of spending in the future.

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