Is Metra CEO on his way out?

  • Alex Clifford

    Alex Clifford

Updated 4/11/2013 1:40 PM

Two years ago, Metra CEO Alex Clifford promised an era of change at the agency, which had been rocked by a financial scandal.

But changes could be under way for Clifford if his contract, which expires next year, is not renewed.


Metra's board of directors plans a special meeting Friday to discuss "personnel" matters. Several officials confirmed that Clifford's contract is up for discussion and some directors are underwhelmed with his performance.

"We'll be doing an evaluation -- some people are pleased with him and some have issues," Arlington Heights Mayor and Metra Director Arlene Mulder said.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Office of Executive Inspector General has been asked to investigate allegations of personnel/hiring improprieties at the agency, Director Jack Schaffer of Cary said and other officials confirmed.

Schaffer defended Clifford's record and said he is perturbed by a movement to oust him led by Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran, noting the two have "philosophical" differences about leadership of the agency.

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"Alex Clifford has done a great job ... at times his leadership has been inspired," Schaffer said. "I'm not saying he's perfect, but he's a straight shooter."

Metra Chief Communications Officer Robert Carlton said Wednesday the agency's only comment was that the board would go into executive session at its Friday meeting to discuss personnel.

O'Halloran did not respond to calls for comment. However, DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin, who has been involved in Metra's reorganization, said he trusts O'Halloran's judgment. O'Halloran was elected as chairman in late 2012.

"I think Brad O'Halloran is a virtuous and capable leader who needs to have a team in place that he trusts," Cronin said.

"Metra is still an agency in transition from the Pagano years. Some of the policies and practices employed in the Pagano era still remain at Metra, and so I think that may be fueling some of this look inward at their team. We're all trying hard to make this a model transit agency."


Former CEO Phil Pagano killed himself in spring 2010 amid an investigation that revealed he swindled more than $475,000 in unauthorized pay. Board leaders admitted he kept them in the dark while exerting total control over the agency and allowing an environment of nepotism to flourish.

After arriving at Metra, Clifford promised to continue reforms instituted by the board and bring in a new era of transparency.

But his tenure has been a bumpy one. Last year was marked by controversy over instituting a major fare increase and protests from South Side lawmakers and residents that a contract for a railway bridge ignored minority businesses.

Clifford has also taken heat for Metra's slow transition to a universal fare card while the CTA and Pace plan to unroll their new system this summer and for the agency's response to instituting positive train control, a federally mandated accident-warning system.

Differing opinions about complicated issues like positive train control are to be expected, Schaffer said, adding the majority of board directors support Clifford.

However, renewing his contract requires eight out of the 11 directors to vote in favor and "four people can stop it," Schaffer said.

Outgoing Arlington Heights mayor Arlene Mulder, the Metra board secretary, said it's too early to predict what might happen.

"I know there are differences of opinion," she said. "It's a huge job. I think he's been challenged to try to do several things simultaneously.

"I know he's been out there representing Metra and been visible, which Metra needs to be."

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