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Editorial: What will it take to oust the Metra board holdouts?

Tuesday, September 03, 2013
Chicago Tribune

Editorial: Damage control at Metra Byrne: Dashing dream of better schools in Louisiana Vote in the Scott Stantis Cartoon Caption Contest See more stories » X Scott Stantis cartoons Ads by Google 5:13 p.m. CDT, September 2, 2013 The Republican members of the Cook County board are pushing a resolution that would ask three suburban holdouts on the Metra board to resign. Pretty please. It's a nonbinding measure, since the county board members don't have the legal authority to fire the people they appointed. The betting is that the Democratic majority is going to snuff it out, anyway — because the legislature is going to overhaul the whole system soon or because the Metra board needs to keep some experienced people or because, lamest of all, the remaining board members are not to blame for the mess that's become of Metra. But they are to blame. All three from Cook County — Arlene Mulder, Don DeGraff and William Widmer III — voted to paper over a patronage scandal. So did two other board holdouts, Jack Partelow of Will County and Norman Carlson of Lake County. We know this only because the gag order in ex-CEO Alex Clifford's $871,000 separation agreement came unwound. The total public cost will top $1 million, thanks to $340,000 spent on lawyers and other professional services. County board member Larry Suffredin is standing behind his man, Widmer. Suffredin says it's "terrible public policy" to call for the board to resign en masse. He doesn't believe the remaining Metra board members can be faulted for approving Clifford's separation agreement, since they were acting on the advice of attorneys. We disagree. It's true that Clifford accused only two — board member Larry Huggins and chairman Brad O'Halloran — of acting along with powerful politicians to influence personnel and contract decisions at Metra. But the other members knew all about Clifford's allegations and voted to keep them secret, speaking of terrible public policy. A Regional Transportation Authority audit found that the separation agreement was "not fiscally prudent" and wasn't vetted rigorously by the full board. The Metra board signed off on the deal without so much as a cost-benefit analysis. Utterly irresponsible. Five Metra board members have resigned already. So the board is limping along with barely a quorum, and that, too, is being offered as an excuse for giving the holdouts a pass. Metra will be fine — better off, even — without them. How should future Metra board members be chosen? Cook County Board member Jeff Tobolski will have a lot to say about who replaces O'Halloran. Tobolski has the biggest share of the weighted vote in that decision. He's asking for applicants with an advanced degree, management experience and a background in transportation. He has also authored a resolution urging the General Assembly to set some qualifications. The law now requires only that they live in the district they represent. That's something for Gov. Pat Quinn's transit task force to consider. The group is to make recommendations to the General Assembly by Jan. 31. In the meantime, the governor should listen to state Rep. Jack Franks, who has lost patience with Metra board members who continue to ignore calls to step down. On Friday, Franks urged Quinn to hold a special session so lawmakers can replace the board with an emergency manager, as they did in 2010 to facilitate sweeping reforms at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. The hoped-for transit overhaul should include reasonable steps for removing board members who fall down on the job. Now, the Metra board can oust one of its members by supermajority vote, or the governor can remove one after a finding by the executive inspector general. Those who appoint the Metra members should be able to remove them for cause. The law sets a very low bar to appoint people to the Metra board, and a very high bar to get rid of them.

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