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Editorial: Metra board can't undo its mistakes
Interin CEO? Fine. But what agency really needs is a new board

Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Chicago Tribune

Having jettisoned their last CEO for taking his marching orders too seriously, the six remaining members of the Metra board on Tuesday named an interim replacement: Don Orseno, a railroad veteran who was the agency's deputy director for operations.

Congratulations, Mr. Orseno, and good luck. You're stepping up at a time when public confidence in Metra ó and what's left of its board ó is at an all-time low.

We wouldn't have thought that possible, given how bad things were in 2011, when your predecessor was hired to clean up behind his predecessor. Alex Clifford took over after Phil Pagano stepped in front of a train to avoid being fired for fleecing the commuter rail agency of nearly half a million dollars.

But Clifford's by-the-books management style ran afoul of the politicians who wanted him to sign off on jobs and contracts for their friends. So he's gone.

So are five board members, including two ó Larry Huggins and Chairman Brad O'Halloran ó who engineered Clifford's exit and fought mightily to keep the public from finding out what it was all about.

Orseno has shared the chief executive's job with Alex Wiggins, deputy director for administration, since June, when the board hastily signed off on Clifford's $871,000 hush-money separation deal.

Under a plan hatched by O'Halloran and yes, approved by the board, the two deputies were to split the CEO's responsibilities indefinitely, with O'Halloran having the final word. Suddenly mindful that state law calls for a single executive to run the agency, the remaining board members voted Tuesday to end the two-headed arrangement.

It's no surprise that Wiggins didn't get the nod. In an eight-page memo spelling out the allegations underlying a threatened lawsuit, Clifford accused O'Halloran and Huggins of conspiring to oust him and give the CEO job to Wiggins.

Pedaling hard to distance themselves from their mistakes, the board members also have severed relations with one of the legal firms that advised them to approve the separation agreement. That was sold as a business decision, board members say; they signed off on the deal to avoid a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. It turns out Metra could have tapped its insurance, which has a $150,000 deductible. Board members say they weren't given that option.

The truth is that the board members sat passively while lawyers and spin doctors ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for what now looks like very bad advice. They signed off on a needlessly expensive settlement driven by the agendas of individual board members, not by the interests of the full Metra board or the agency ó and especially not of the public.

The board members own this mess. They can't disown it.

Nor can they undo their errors by rehiring Clifford, a possibility now bandied about. As a practical matter, they can't hire Clifford or anyone else to be CEO without at least eight votes; after five resignations, the 11-member board can barely muster a quorum.

The politicians charged with filling the vacancies are having a hard time finding candidates who are willing or able to withstand the bright light now trained on the board. That's a good thing. These are important jobs, not cushy paid gigs to be awarded to political pals and puppets. Metra needs board members who are qualified ó and whose hands are clean.

That rules out five of the six remaining board members. Jack Schaffer, who represents McHenry, cast the only "no" vote on the settlement.

On Tuesday, the Republican members of the Cook County Board called for the resignations of three holdouts who represent suburban Cook: Don De Graff, Arlene Mulder and William Widmer III. To that list we would add Norman Carlson, of Lake County, and Jack Partelow, of Will County. Selfishly, stubbornly, they're still hanging around. They have to go.

Metra can't break from its troubles as long as people who caused them are still in charge.

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