Metra officials Friday picked an experienced railroader to lead the agency at a pivotal moment in its history.
Interim CEO Don Orseno, former chief of operations and a train engineer early in his career, won what some might consider the dubious honor of moving Metra forward.
"My grandfather was a railroader for over 50 years, my father was for 47 years -- I always wanted to work for the railroad," Orseno told the Daily Herald in September.
Friday, Orseno said his appointment "means the world to me. Now my dream has come true."
The new CEO faces formidable challenges. Riders are irate after a January full of delays and cancellations. The police department is a mess, according to a recent report. Funding is scarce for system upgrades and positive train control, a federally mandated safety system.
Orseno, who witnessed a train versus pedestrian collision years ago when he was an engineer, said safety will be the agency's first priority. But he acknowledged Metra needs to improve its customer relations and promised to offer up-to-the-minute information about train status on the agency website in the future.
"What a customer wants when they're standing at a station is, 'When is the next train going to come? What can I expect?'" Orseno said. "We want to deliver that."
Other difficulties to navigate will be the baggage of past CEOs.
Former chief Phil Pagano, an experienced railroader, committed suicide in spring 2010 amid a probe into his swindling more than $475,000 in unauthorized pay, including vacation benefits. Pagano ran a tight ship and was criticized for keeping the board in the dark about operations while allowing an environment of nepotism to flourish.
Successor Alex Clifford, a transit executive from California, started in February 2011 and exited in June 2013. Clifford sent shock waves through Metra when his scathing memo listing accusations of political interference over jobs by the likes of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was released. Clifford said he was pushed out of his job because he didn't go along with patronage pressure. Madigan has said he did nothing improper.
A June separation agreement of up to $718,000 with Clifford got the attention of two state inspectors general who are investigating the circumstances surrounding his departure. Clifford also got into a power struggle with former Chairman Brad O'Halloran and former Director Larry Huggins, whom he accused of conflict of interest over contracts. Both officials denied any misconduct, but they resigned last summer.
"We've lost public trust and we need to earn that back," Orseno said.
Asked what he'd do to keep the agency free of corruption, Orseno said, "Do the right things for the right reasons, and those issues go away.
"Nobody will get a raise unless they're deserving of a raise and that's shown by their work product ... no one's going to make a call and say, 'Give somebody a raise.' Not as long as I'm sitting here."
Noting Metra has one of the busiest commuter lines in the nation, acting Chairman Jack Partelow of Naperville said in nominating Orseno, "It is a difficult balance to find an individual who has the understanding of railroad operations, customer service delivery, and local and national advocacy."
Orseno has worked at Metra more for more than 30 years and has high-level positions in several national groups, including the Association of American Railroads.
Clifford, contacted Friday, called Orseno "a top-notch leader."
"His knowledge of the railroad and his leadership skills will no doubt be the basis for his future success as a CEO. I am proud that I had the opportunity to promote Don twice during my tenure with Metra and excited that the Board has promoted Don to the position of CEO," Clifford said in an email.
The board had conducted a national search and interviewed four candidates.
"We didn't just want to think we have a good guy," Director and former Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder said. "That would have been easy. We wanted to have the very best, and Don is the very best."
"He's very forward-thinking," Director Jack Schaffer of Cary said. "Riders have every reason to be optimistic about the future."
Orseno, 59, will be paid $262,500 a year. He was earning $184,935. His raise is retroactive to late August, when he was named interim chief, which means he will receive about $32,000 in additional pay.