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Cook County Commissioner defends Metra Board members, predicts ouster move will fail

Thursday, August 29, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Rosalind Rossi

A Democratic Cook County commissioner Wednesday predicted a proposed resolution asking half the Metra board to resign would fail and said the idea was “terrible public policy” because the “bad apples” on the Metra Board have already bailed out.

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin defended three Metra Board members targeted for ouster just as state Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) said the refusal of at least two of the trio to resign made them the “poster children for why we need change.”

Meanwhile, the co-chair of Gov. Patrick Quinn’s new transit task force said Wednesday “that’s a real problem” if Metra board members are refusing calls from their political sponsors to step down.

“That’s obviously one of the things we’ll be looking at if it doesn’t get resolved very quickly,’’ task force co-chair George Ranney told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force will convene for the first time at 1 p.m. next Tuesday in Room N502 of the Bilandic Building, 160 N. LaSalle Street. Public comment is welcome.

Quinn appointed the task force’s 15 members in the wake of a scandal that has gripped Metra ever since board members agreed to pay ex-CEO Alex Clifford $871,000 to exit his contract eight months early and keep mum about the deal — unless questioned by authorities. Since then, public hearings have revealed that at the time, Clifford had threatened a whistleblower lawsuit, based on his charges that two board members wanted to dump him for refusing to “play ball’’ on patronage and contracts.

Ranney said he expects the task force to look at how the region’s transit operations stack up against others across the nation, and how the best-performing systems are governed.

“Something needs to be done to restore Metra’s credibility. That’s part of our assignment,’’ said Ranney, CEO of Metropolis Strategies and former chair of another task force that helped create the RTA.

Five of 11 Metra Board members have resigned since the Clifford mess went public, including former chair Brad O’Halloran and colleague Larry Huggins. Both were mentioned prominently in an April 3 memo in which Clifford outlined patronage and contract-related requests by the two men and accused them of trying to orchestrate his ouster.

Suffredin noted that the April 3 memo never mentioned the three suburban Cook County Metra Board members — Don De Graff, Arlene Mulder and William Widmer III — whom opposing Republicans on the County Board now want to dump. The four Republicans have sponsored a resolution — only advisory and yet to be approved — that asks all three Metra Board members to resign pending the selection of replacements by Cook County commissioners. De Graff and Mulder say they have no plans to leave. Widmer has not responded to requests for comment.

“I think it is terrible public policy to appoint quality people to these boards and then try to pull the rug out from them, especially when the bad apples appear to be O’Halloran and Huggins, and they are gone,’’ Suffredin said.

“There’s no indication anywhere that any of these three [De Graff, Mulder and Widmer] have done anything wrong.’’

However, Franks accused the trio and the rest of the board of failing to ask tough questions as the tangle of Clifford accusations unraveled before their eyes. Franks said he would have “probed more” about an insurance policy that board members say was barely mentioned and then shrugged off, but RTA auditors say would have provided $10 million in liability coverage if Clifford had sued Metra.

“To continue to say they were kept in the dark means they weren’t tenacious enough, they weren’t doing their job,” Franks said.

“They are cooking their own goose. They are proving why there needs to be fundamental change.’’

Also Wednesday, Democratic Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski asked anyone interested in filling O’Halloran’s southwest and west suburban Metra seat to send him a resume and cover letter. In a news release, Tobolski said he wanted to make the nomination process “as transparent and open as possible.’’ Wrote Tobolski: “This is a great opportunity to serve your community and be a leader.’’

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