The controversial separation agreement given to former Metra CEO Alex Clifford was among the top local stories of the year, sparking a critical audit by the Regional Transportation Authority.
But the RTA itself has quietly entered into 12 separation/severance agreements with ex-employees costing $276,000 over the last three years, including one totaling $88,000. The exit packages parallel an employee exodus at the agency in the same time frame.
Yoga to goFind a little Zen at O'Hare International Airport thanks to the opening of a Yoga Room. The unusual feature opened this week on the mezzanine level of Terminal 3's rotunda. Hours are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Another yoga center is expected to open at Midway International Airport next year.
The 12 separation/severance agreements comprise settlements for: $88,814; $42,000; $30,932; $24,741; $17,035; $16,473; $15,000; $15,000; $7,360; $7,031; $6,734; and $5,125.
To put that in context, there have been no separation agreements with nonunion employees at the CTA in the past two years, Chicago Transit Authority spokesman Brian Steele said.
The RTA blacked out names and exit dates from the separation agreements, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Administrators also requested departing employees to sign a gag order.
"While the underlying reasons for entering into each contract involves confidential personnel information, each agreement was individually evaluated. Because we take our contractual and financial obligations very seriously, each agreement was entered into in the best interests of taxpayers and the agency," RTA communications director Susan Massel said.
"It's the first I've heard of them," board Director Bill Coulson said. In January 2011, the RTA numbered 104 employees. By fall 2013, 32 had left. The departures include: six retirements, five let go due to a reorganization, 13 employees who left voluntarily, and eight employees who left involuntarily, Massel said.
The 30 percent turnover is significant, one former RTA executive director said. "I was there for five years ... it would be surprising if we lost a couple of people in a given year," said Steve Schlickman, now Director of UIC's Urban Transportation Center.
The exodus dovetailed with new leadership -- Chairman John S. Gates, Executive Director Joseph Costello and Chief of Staff Jordan Matyas.
"We knew there would be a lot of changes when Joe and Jordan came in," Coulson said. The board, however, wanted to avoid micromanaging the new team, he added.
Several longtime employees said they were caught by surprise when asked to clear out their desks. Former governmental affairs manager Sam Smith's dismissal in September 2011 couldn't have come at a worse time -- his wife had just given birth to their first child.
"Initially, I was not given any reason for my dismissal by either Joe Costello, or my boss Jordan Matyas," said Smith, who is now Metra's legislative affairs officer.
"After the fact, I had learned that the reason for my dismissal was that the RTA was 'getting out of the federal lobbying business.'"
However, two months later, Smith said, he met Costello and Matyas in Washington, D.C., where they were meeting with an Illinois congressional delegation and attending a legislative conference.
Smith noted that the RTA later approved a contract with federal lobbyist ASGK.
Massel said the RTA could not comment on personnel matters.
As of this fall, the agency has 112 employees.
New hires since 2011 total 33 and one of the most significant was Matyas, an attorney and son-in-law to House Speaker Michael Madigan. Matyas started out in government affairs and now is RTA chief of staff.
The majority of the agency's nine senior executives are also relative newbies to transit. Five out of nine were hired in 2012 and, in February, the RTA will lose Costello, an expert in transit financing, who is retiring.
It will be interesting to see the new dynamic at the agency if -- as expected -- Senior Deputy Executive Director for Planning Leanne Redden gets appointed as interim chief Wednesday. Redden's well-regarded by her peers as an experienced transit professional, which could calm the waters.
One more thing
The staff shuffling is not the only reason the RTA's a moving target these days.
A task force appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn to reform transit is expected to issue recommendations shaking up the status quo to the General Assembly in early 2014.
Already transit experts and lawmakers are weighing in on the role of the RTA and its satellites, including Metra, which triggered the scrutiny when officials approved an up-to $718,000 separation agreement with Clifford.
The timing comes as the RTA has taken a more activist role that some applaud and some question.
• Gates has issued a series of position papers critical of waste and redundancies at Metra, Pace and the CTA. He's called for more consolidations and greater powers for the RTA to audit and correct inefficiencies. The three agencies have pushed back, accusing the RTA of waste and "mission creep."
• The agency's embarked on a national campaign dubbed Getting America to Work intended to promote the need for transit funding and related jobs.
• Matyas has spearheaded a series of lawsuits against municipalities and businesses intended to stop tax dollars from being diverted out of the six-county region.
"The decision to engage in sales tax lawsuits was based on the fact that funds were being diverted from the RTA region at a huge loss to the transit agencies and riders," Massel said. "The RTA, as the financial and oversight body of the Service Boards, is the appropriate agency to address this diversion of funds."
And a recent Supreme Court ruling, Massel said, should "translate into more sales tax dollars for transit in our region. As a result of this decision, companies will now have to pay sales tax in the jurisdiction where the bulk of their selling activity takes place."
She also said the RTA was proud of its success with the Getting America to Work Coalition, which has grown from 49 members in eight states to 86 in 16 states.
You should know
So what are people saying about the future of the RTA?
"We need finally to go to one agency," Schlickman said at a recent University of Illinois at Chicago forum titled "The Future of RTA." "We tried to make a multiple agency structure work and it's not working."
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, who sits on the Transportation Committee, thinks "it's fair to ask questions about mission creep and duplicative activities. We're budgeting at a time when resources are smaller than they've ever been."
Republican state Reps. Michael Tryon and David Harris, who sit on the Mass Transit Committee, remember the RTA's reorganization in 1983.
Tryon, of Crystal Lake, said "there needs to be an independent transportation agency that oversees the bonding and budgeting and how the money's being spent. If there's a problem with the RTA, we need to talk about what the problems are -- we don't need to blow up the governance structure."
Harris, of Arlington Heights, said it's time to look at the agency and "see what beneficial changes we can make to ensure transit is as efficient as it can be."
Carol Kenzel of Elk Grove Village say's she's "disgusted" by the state paying $363,000 for an ornate bridge at Mannheim Road over the Eisenhower Expressway. "The politicians in Illinois have made us a laughing stock. They have caused us not to be able to pay our bills. We do not need to pay for an ornate fence -- what's wrong with a functional fence? My guess is most drivers looking up are only looking to ensure there is no loose cement to come crashing onto their cars since the bridges have not been adequately maintained. I would also suspect that most drivers only want traffic to be moving. If (Gov. Pat) Quinn truly believes an ornate fence will make drivers happy, we have bigger problems than I thought. At this point, I do not intend to vote for re- electing any politician currently in office -- we need a whole new group to get things back on track."
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Vroom. Vroom. Mark your calenders for the Chicago Auto Show 2014, which runs from Feb. 8 to 17 this year at McCormick Place. For more info, go to www.chicagoautoshow.com/.
The Illinois tollway is shifting traffic on Rohlwing Road at the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway to the northbound lanes to prepare for a new interchange. The new traffic pattern should last until fall 2014.