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updated: 2/11/2014 6:03 PM

Oberman picked to chair Metra board

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  • Martin Oberman

       Martin Oberman
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Marni Pyke/mpyke@dailyherald.comNew Metra Chairman Martin Oberman of Chicago talks about his objectives at a Tuesday meeting.

      Marni Pyke/mpyke@dailyherald.comNew Metra Chairman Martin Oberman of Chicago talks about his objectives at a Tuesday meeting.

 
 

Metra's board got a fresh start Tuesday with the appointment of Chicago attorney and former Alderman Martin Oberman as chairman.

Oberman is known as an independent reformer who served on the Chicago City Council under Mayor Harold Washington. He is the first Chicagoan named to the position, although former Director Larry Huggins of Chicago served as a temporary chairman.

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"Metra is one system and we have a fiduciary obligation to the whole system," said Oberman when asked how he would reconcile demands for service improvements across the six counties.

He promised not to micromanage, saying "the chairman has no special power. It will not in the future be an autocracy run as a fiefdom."

Historically, there's been a push and pull between Chicago and the suburbs over control of the Metra board. But after an embarrassing year that involved the resignation of the previous chairman amid allegations of political cronyism, getting the best person trumped geography, suburban directors said.

"The issue of city and suburbs -- no one considered that," Vice Chairman Jack Partelow of Naperville said. "We wanted to pick the right guy and we got the right guy."

The other candidates were former CTA attorney John Plante of Wilmette and Lemont Mayor Brian Reaves.

Characterizing himself as a McHenry County Republican, Director Jack Schaffer of Cary said he was "proud to vote for a Chicago liberal Democrat. Marty (Oberman) is someone who is respected and is not naive about Illinois politics."

Metra Director and former Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder added that, "once you're on the board you don't wear your geographic location ... you look at how the 11 train lines will operate effectively and serve the six-county region." She called Oberman a solid leader who could build consensus.

Oberman was appointed to Metra in 2013 by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Metra bylaws have established a rotating chairmanship, alternating between Cook County members and collar county members. The current term must be held by a Cook County resident.

Oberman replaces Partelow, a retired business executive, who received applause Tuesday for stepping into the chairman's job on an interim basis.

The prestigious position has been tarnished in the last four years with falls from grace for previous leaders.

Chairman Carole Doris left under difficult circumstances in spring 2011, a year after the suicide of former CEO Phil Pagano in the midst of a financial misconduct probe.

Acting Chairman Larry Huggins, who succeeded Doris, wanted the job but lost out to Director Brad O'Halloran in November 2012. That move came after months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the elected officials who appoint Metra directors: the Chicago mayor, Cook County Board members, the Cook County Board president and the five chairmen of the Collar County boards.

O'Halloran became involved in a power struggle with former CEO Alex Clifford. Both men exited Metra last summer amid a growing scandal into political patronage at the agency, which Clifford accused O'Halloran and Huggins of condoning.

The latest chairman will face a number of challenges from rider frustration over delays related to the polar vortex and other causes, lack of funding and creating a universal fare system with the CTA and Pace.

Oberman said he wanted to improve communications but added Metra was up against the elements January. "It's very hard to give instant information every time a block of ice falls on a switch."

Oberman, who lives in Lincoln Park, has a bachelor's degree from Yale University and law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Other civic involvement includes counsel for the Illinois Racing Board, and member of a city panel that examined privatizing Midway International Airport.

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