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posted: 12/20/2013 9:07 AM

Editorial: RTA needs serious focus on reform in 2014

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  • Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford, center, speaks to the oversight RTA board last summer. Under new leadership, the RTA must focus on reform.

       Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford, center, speaks to the oversight RTA board last summer. Under new leadership, the RTA must focus on reform.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Another investigation, another scathing report.

2013 was marked by scandal at Metra, the region's commuter rail agency, starting with the departure of CEO Alex Clifford. But the oversight body for all transportation in the Chicago area, the Regional Transportation Agency, is now embroiled in its own scandal as we head into 2014. At the heart of the criticism is the body's management, which strengthens the argument from a state task force investigation that, in a preliminary report in October, said there is a lack of accountability on the transit boards.

Consider the stories of the last few days:

The RTA has entered into 12 separation/severance agreements with ex-employees, costing $276,000 over the last three years. That revelation comes on the heels of the controversial separation agreement given to the former Metra CEO, an agreement ironically criticized in an audit done by the RTA.

The severance packages highlight a 30 percent turnover rate at the agency at the same time new leadership was brought in -- Chairman John S. Gates, Executive Director Joseph Costello and Chief of Staff Jordan Matyas.

Costello announced last week that he would retire at the end of February. This week, an independent attorney's report from 2012 was obtained by the Daily Herald and chastised RTA management for overseeing a "toxic" environment in which Costello and Matyas are accused of using racial slurs and Costello is accused of using sexually offensive language.

Matyas, who is the son-in-law of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, and Costello have denied all accusations of improper behavior, according to Wednesday's story by Daily Herald Transportation Writer Marni Pyke. But the independent attorney wrote that the allegations were credible, based on employee interviews.

Costello soon will be gone and a new acting executive director was named Wednesday -- senior planner Leanne Redden. Early reports are that she will be welcome change in management. However, she will have a difficult task to repair the agency's image, but that must be among her top early priorities. But much like the image repairing at Metra, it needs to be done in a transparent style and in a way that doesn't break the bank. Earlier this fall, RTA already came in for criticism from us and others for spending $670,000 on outside PR work.

Finally, the state task force report will be made public in January. The preliminary report said the transit system is "not guided by a strong, clear vision." Instead, with four transit boards and 47 political appointees, decisions are more about representing political or geographic constituencies than the overall good of the public.

"Now people are paying attention, so it's important we do something significant," said task force member George Ranney of Grayslake.

If 2013 was about transit agency scandals, we are looking forward to 2014 focusing on reform and better serving the region.

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