Clifford's return unlikely when Metra picks interim chief

  • Alex Clifford

    Alex Clifford

Updated 8/23/2013 6:29 PM

When Metra's board of directors gathers Tuesday for a special meeting to discuss personnel, you can expect they'll pick an interim CEO instead of the two-man team running the show currently.

But indications are former Chief Executive Officer Alex Clifford won't be a contender.


"He's not coming back," Acting Chairman Jack Partelow of Naperville said. "You threaten to sue your employer and the agency goes through all this grief ... there's no reason why we should even consider it."

Clifford left in June with a bang after accusing the board's former Chairman Brad O'Halloran and Director Larry Huggins of misconduct and involvement with political patronage over jobs. Huggins and O'Halloran have denied any wrongdoing but both recently resigned, as have three other directors, leaving the board with a bare quorum of six.

Controversy erupted after Clifford's departure when the board approved an up-to-$718,000 separation agreement subsequently dubbed "hush money" at worst and a "golden parachute" at best. Board members said the deal was a business decision triggered by concerns over an expensive lawsuit.

On Wednesday, Clifford's attorney Michael Shakman suggested that his client is eager to return to Metra and end the flap.

At present, Deputy Executive Director for Operations Don Orseno, a veteran railroader, and Deputy Executive Director for Administration Alex Wiggins, a former California transit executive, share power at the top. However, the RTA Act specifies the agency should be run by one CEO.

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Eight directors are required to vote on a permanent chief executive but experts have said the remaining six could legally pick an interim leader.

Comments from board directors suggest it will be either Orseno or Wiggins -- not Clifford.

However, Director Don DeGraff, the South Holland mayor, didn't rule out a discussion on the issue.

"Anything is possible," DeGraff said. "I don't think it's wise as a board to close any doors." Director Jack Schaffer of Cary has always supported Clifford, casting the lone "no" vote against the separation agreement.

Director and former Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder was tepid about the idea of bringing Clifford back. "I don't know if that's possible," she said, "I think that would complicate things."

Several board members have said they had concerns about Clifford's administrative performance.

Mulder added she supported Clifford's hiring in 2011 after former CEO Phil Pagano committed suicide amid a corruption probe. "We asked for someone who was squeaky clean and (Clifford) was ... but it's a matter of conflict of personalities and style of operations."

Directors William Widmer and Norm Carlson of Lake Forest did not return calls for comment, but both were on the negotiating team that produced the separation agreement.

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