Stop paying transit board members, state task force suggests

Updated 2/28/2014 7:14 PM
  • Patrick Fitzgerald said "there's a lot of work to do" regarding ethics reform on the region's transit boards.

    Patrick Fitzgerald said "there's a lot of work to do" regarding ethics reform on the region's transit boards. Associated Press file photo

Eliminating pay for transit board members, changing funding formulas and requiring executives to guarantee that politics play no part in purchases are among the sweeping recommendations by a state transit task force.

The preliminary suggestions offered up Friday by the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force, if finalized in March, will go to Illinois lawmakers and to Gov. Pat Quinn, who convened the group.

The task force started work in 2013 after a scandalous summer when allegations of political pressure over jobs and conflicts of interest arose at Metra, the commuter rail agency. Also in play are a funding crisis facing Metra, Pace and the CTA, concerns about inefficiencies and redundant bureaucracies, and the relevancy of the Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees all three transit agencies.

Regarding ethics reforms, "there's a lot of work to do," said former U.S. attorney and task force member Patrick Fitzgerald. He supported stripping transit board members of salaries that are as high as $25,000 for RTA directors.

"I do think that there ought to be a sense that service on a board is service to the board. … It's not about drawing a salary. This makes folks independent," he said.

But former CTA board Chairman and RTA member Carole Brown noted that board members "contribute an incredible amount of time and effort," sometimes attending daylong meetings, and it could be hard to find qualified volunteers without a stipend.

Other large cities don't pay transit board members, Fitzgerald said, asking, "What is unique about this area that we need to pay folks compared to New York and Los Angeles?"

Other preliminary ethics recommendations included having board members vetted by an independent panel; allowing board members to be removed for crimes, misconduct, inefficiency or neglect of duty; establishing a "firewall" between elected officials and agencies regarding hiring and firing and purchases; and background checks for board members.

The firewall would address patronage, a "long-standing and serious issue," Fitzgerald said.

Additional scrutiny of prospective board members "might go a long way to restore public confidence so people feel confident this isn't just politics but picking the best candidate," Fitzgerald said.

Financing recommendations include a regional strategic plan, an outreach campaign and a new funding framework that uses performance metrics or quantitative ways to measure results such as ridership. Altering formulas is a controversial move, but the status quo is also problematic with jockeying between the city and suburbs over limited funds.

"We're very much saying we need more money, we need more resources," Brown said. "That's not going to happen overnight."

Task force member Tony Paulauski called for a bolder financial plan that addresses funding gaps. "Let's make this a report that has some meaning," he said.

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