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updated: 4/1/2014 11:48 PM

Metra chair weighs in on task force proposal

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  • Task force Co-Chairs George Ranney, left, and IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider, along with former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, want transit reforms.

       Task force Co-Chairs George Ranney, left, and IDOT Secretary Ann Schneider, along with former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, want transit reforms.
    Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 

Although Metra tightened ethics provisions after a scandal last summer over hiring pressure by lawmakers, tough new reforms proposed by a state task force seem appropriate, its chairman said Tuesday.

The Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force issued a groundbreaking report Monday that calls for merging Metra, Pace and the CTA and eliminating the RTA. It also talks of corruption among transit agencies and a history of patronage at Metra in the 1980s and 1990s.

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Task force members described boxes of index cards holding names of people referred for jobs or raises by politicians in existence at Metra from 1983 until 1991. The report also stated that Speaker Michael Madigan was a "prominent participant" in the patronage process and "in effect decided they (applicants) were hired."

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said the lack of specifics in the task force's report was "amateurish" and dated. However, he said Madigan had asked House Mass Transit Chairman Al Riley to hold a hearing on the report and go through its recommendations.

The proposed ethics restrictions "all seem fine to me," Metra Chairman Martin Oberman said. He noted that "there's no simple solution to the culture of political patronage. Citizens have to step up to the plate and hold people accountable."

But Oberman called the plan to merge the CTA, Metra and Pace -- creating a superagency and board with a suggested 21 members -- "very new and complex." He said he needed time to talk it over.

Longtime Metra director and former state Sen. Jack Schaffer of Cary was skeptical about the merger plan. "I've never seen a committee of 21 people ever accomplish anything," he said.

The task force was convened by Gov. Pat Quinn. The group's reform ideas, which include dropping current funding formulas and either cutting pay or shrinking stipends for board members, are now in the hands of Quinn and the Illinois legislature.

Schaffer, who is finishing his term on Metra in June, said an unpaid board risks a situation where "staff calls the shots. I'm sure you'll find good people, but I'm also sure they won't put in 20 hours a week."

Schaffer also envisioned a scenario where the superagency moves into the RTA's old space on Jackson Avenue, 75 percent of RTA staff members end up working there, and "everyone gets a pay raise. The devil's in the details," he said.

The task force suggested that the chairmen of the six counties and Chicago mayor select 15 out of the 21 superagency board members. The governor would appoint the other five and the chairman.

That may or may not be "good news for the suburbs," depending on who the governor is, Schaffer said.

"Who would Gov. (Rod) Blagojevich have appointed?" Schaffer said, referring to the former Democratic governor convicted of corruption. "From the Democrat point of view, who would Gov. Bruce Rauner appoint?" he wondered, referring to the Republican candidate for governor.

Among the ethics reforms are background checks and the ability to remove board members for misconduct, plus a firewall between the agency and lawmakers to avoid pressure over hiring and purchasing.

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