Metra's paying $403,000 for spin control

Talk isn't cheap — at least when it comes to Metra's public relations consultants.

The agency has paid more than $403,000 to Culloton Strategies, a communications firm, since April 2010.

And it's expected to spend additional funds on PR consultants in the future.

Former Metra CEO Phil Pagano OK'd the contract with Culloton Strategies in February 2010 but it did not go before the board of directors for a vote.

The company specializes in crisis management and was hired to provide public information services, communications strategy, community outreach and printing.

Ironically, a PR tsunami occurred just months later when Pagano stepped in front of a train on May 7, 2010, amid an investigation into financial wrongdoing. It was later revealed Pagano swindled at least $475,000 in vacation pay and ran the agency like a dictator, keeping board directors in the dark about operations.

Metra has been hard-pressed since to right the ship and convince the public it's back on track, spending money responsibly and committed to openness.

That's why I wanted to find out more about Culloton's $450,000 contract.

Metra senior director of media relations Judy Pardonnet said her department needs the outside help. Four employees deal with media inquiries and public outreach while two work on the Metra website. Department employees are on call 24 hours a day in case of emergencies, she said.

“We have a very small staff,” she said. “We have media inquiries every day, we don't have any graphic artists or the ability to produce collateral materials.”

Metra officials were unable to provide the budget for the media relations department as of last week.

Culloton Strategies creates brochures and posters to inform communities and riders about programs, such as Metra's Quiet Cars, and projects including safety upgrades on the UP West Line or construction on the UP North Line. Work on the UP North Line last summer became a major PR fiasco for Metra, which reversed course on train schedule changes after myriad complaints from riders.

The firm also advises on how to handle a major service disruption in the event of a 9/11 type scenario, Pardonnet said.

“We've done good work at a discounted rate to help Metra, which doesn't have large media relations staff,” firm founder Dennis Culloton said. He noted, “it's obviously ironic Phil Pagano was concerned about crisis communication when he retained (the firm).”

Culloton Strategies staff spent hours advising Metra leaders on how to handle the fallout from the scandal.

“We put a lot of effort into helping the board as they dealt with the controversies and unfortunate death of the former executive director,” Culloton said.

Soon, Metra is expected to ask interested parties to submit proposals for a new communications contract. The question is, will it be scaled back at all given the agency's recent announcement of looming budget shortfalls and possible service cuts or fare hikes?

Although board members did not approve the first communications consultants' contract, they will be voting on the second one.

That type of oversight is something state senators who've been scrutinizing Metra since the Pagano scandal say is crucial.

“A contract of that magnitude, especially when dealing with the ticklish subject of public relations, should require board approval — from an accountability standpoint,” Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, said.

“To justify that contract (at a board meeting) would be very, very difficult,” state Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat said.

Board members are expected to discuss policies on contracts and purchases at an upcoming meeting, Metra Director Jim LaBelle said.

“Everything we spend needs to be scrutinized,” he said. “$400,000 is a lot and it needs to be less. It's worth considering what outside help we need.”

One more thing

Culloton Strategies doesn't have to travel far to reach its client. Pagano approved a lease agreement with the firm in April 2010 to rent office space on the 10th floor of its headquarters at 547 W. Jackson in Chicago. The monthly rent in 2010 was $2,115, which works out to about $14.39 a square foot.

That's a good deal, experts say. “I'd be very happy to pay that rent,” said Wayne Caplan, director of investment with commercial real estate firm Sperry Van Ness and a director with the Chicago Association of Realtors.

Dennis Culloton said the lease arrangement was handled by a Realtor and the firm also pays property taxes on top of rent.

Your voice

Peter VandeMotter of Mundelein weighed in on IDOT plans for I-290 saying, “I am not going to argue whether the Eisenhower is the worst area expressway. Easily it is in the top three. Nor will I predict the action of Oak Park, which once wanted to cover it with a park. But I will point out that its troubles were sown during its construction.

“The Eisenhower was the first Chicago expressway with rapid transit in the median. What many don't know is it replaced the Garfield Park Elevated. The Chicago, Aurora and Elgin (Railroad) had trackage rights on that line. However, they were terminated when the new line opened, forcing a transfer at Forest Park for those going downtown. A short time later, the line went out of business. Whether it could have kept operating if it had trackage rights we will never know. But it is a good example of how bad planning has long-lasting effects.”

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