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Move to give Metra board hiring power draws fire
Some officials see plan as bid for patronage

Friday, December 14, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Richard Wronski

Metra's board of directors became embroiled in a heated debate Friday over a move by the agency's new chairman to give the board the power to hire top employees. Under the measure, the board would approve new hires making $75,000 a year or more. Currently, the agency's executive director has the authority to hire those employees and set their salaries. The proposal also calls for naming an Employment Practices Committee of board members who would review all compensation and benefits policies. The measure, according to Metra's general counsel, is in keeping with reforms made in the wake of the scandal involving former Executive Director Phil Pagano. In the past two years, Metra's board has taken several steps to give itself more oversight and keep the power of the executive director in check. Brad O'Halloran, appointed as chairman last month, said the measure was intended to "increase transparency" at the agency. The goal was not to give the board hiring power, but to keep the board informed when key positions are being filled, he said. Some board members took issue with the need for the proposal, however. One longtime Metra director, Jack Schaffer, said he viewed the proposal as a way to give board members patronage power. "I know what patronage is," said Schaffer, a former Republican state legislator from McHenry County. "I want no part of it." O'Halloran grew visibly upset with some of the outspoken Schaffer's arguments, and his voice grew loud as he defended the measure. "Jack, to say this is some sort of patronage (ploy) Ö I take offense at that," said O'Halloran, from Orland Park. After a long discussion, the board sent the proposal to a three-member ad hoc committee for study. But O'Halloran insisted that the measure be revisited in January. Metra's general counsel, Iain Johnston, said the proposed ordinance was another effort to implement changes urged by consultants in 2010 after an investigation showed widespread abuses by Pagano. Pagano, 60, committed suicide by stepping in front of a Metra train on May 7, 2010, after an investigation revealed he had taken $475,000 in unapproved vacation pay and forged memos to cover it up. An investigative audit by the accounting firm Blackman Kallick LLP found that Pagano used his authority "to secure enhanced benefits for himself and others." Similarly, an audit by the accounting firm Ernst & Young said that Metra's directors did nothing for years to review or approve Pagano's actions. Other board members' comments showed a deep split on the proposal, some backing O'Halloran and others expressing concern about the measure. Mike McCoy, who represents Kane County, said characterizing the plan as a way to increase patronage was "ridiculous and offensive." But William Widmer, from Evanston, said he feared the board "could become the go-to people about getting hired" at Metra.

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