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Another Metra board member leaving in wake of scandal

Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Stacy St.Clair, Richard Wronski, Clifford Ward

The embattled Metra board will lose yet another member connected to a severance scandal that engulfed the commuter rail agency this summer, officials said today.

Board member William Widmer will leave the agency as soon as Cook County commissioners can pick his replacement. Widmer was among the Metra board members who negotiated a $871,000 departure package for then-CEO Alex Clifford, who leveled allegations of political back scratching and questionable contracts at Metra before his June resignation.

The controversial, no-tell severance package prompted two ethics investigations and five board resignations. Widmer would be the sixth of 11 board members to leave in the scandal's wake. Widmer’s term was up, and he asked not to be reappointed.

Several county commissioners had been calling on Widmer and Metra's two other Cook County representatives to step down in order to restore the public's faith in the nation's second-largest commuter rail operation.

On Tuesday, former federal judge Manuel Barbosa of Elgin was appointed to the Metra board, becoming its first Hispanic member.

Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen named Barbosa to the commuter rail agency's board along with the selection of Don DeWitte, the former mayor of St. Charles, to represent the county on the Regional Transportation Authority board.

Also Tuesday, the DuPage County Board confirmed board chairman Dan Cronin's appointment of John Zediker of Naperville to Metra's board, as expected.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's appointment of former Ald. Martin Oberman was presented Wednesday to the City Council, where it was referred to committee.

Barbosa replaces Mike McCoy of Aurora, who was the first to resign. His term expires in March 2016.

Barbosa and DeWitte were confirmed unanimously by the Kane County Board. They were chosen from a field of 11 by Lauzen and a bipartisan, four-member panel of County Board members.

Lauzen said his main criteria for picking Barbosa were his reputation for honesty, competence and building relationships, which will be important as a rebuilt Metra board coalesces.

"He's the personification of trustworthiness and integrity," Lauzen said.

Barbosa, 65, who retired in January after 15 years on the federal bankruptcy bench, faced extensive background checks in becoming a judge, Lauzen noted.

Born in Mexico, Barbosa worked as a child in Texas with his family of migrant workers. Raised in Elgin, he attended Benedictine University (formerly St. Procopius College) and John Marshall Law School.

His resume lists participation in several organizations and events involving Mexican-American relations. Barbosa was the first chairman of the Illinois Human Rights Commission and served on the panel for 18 years.

Barbosa acknowledged he has not been a frequent Metra rider and has little experience with transportation but said he is eager to learn.

"I recognize there are aspects of that job I will need to bring myself up to speed on," he told the Tribune. "I intend to educate myself rather quickly."

As a judge, Barbosa was assigned the bankruptcy case of Barbara Pagano, the widow of former Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano, who committed suicide in 2010 after being accused of taking $475,000 in unapproved vacation pay.

In her bankruptcy petition filed in September 2010, Barbara Pagano said her husband left her more than $1 million in debt. She settled with her creditors a year later with the help of a $500,000 payout from her husband's life insurance.

Barbosa told the Tribune the case did not pose a conflict of interest for him because a settlement was reached.

"It was resolved without my input ultimately," he said.

DeWitte, Kane County's RTA appointee, stepped down as mayor of St. Charles after eight years. He previously served as a City Council member for 12 years. The experience helped him gain insight into transportation issues and government operations, he wrote in his letter of application.

Lauzen noted that DeWitte publicly supported him twice in previous runs for office but also supported Lauzen's opponents two other times.

"The bottom line is Don DeWitte thinks for himself," Lauzen said.

DeWitte's term on the RTA board runs through April 2017. He replaces Nabi Fakroddin, who resigned when it was revealed he was serving on the Illinois Human Rights Commission simultaneously.

In DuPage, Zediker's confirmation came on a 13-0 vote. Two board members, Democrats Liz Chaplin and Laurie Nowak, voted "present," while two others, Republican JR McBride and Democrat Tony Michelassi, were not in the room when the votes were cast.

Chaplin was critical of the process by which Cronin selected Zediker, 41, who served on the County Board from 2009 until 2012. Zediker works for a Joliet transportation planning and land development services firm.

"I didn't realize until I saw in the newspaper that there were 30 other applicants for the position," Chaplin said. "I think we owe it especially to those 30 applicants … that we do the best job that we can do, and I'm not sure that today we did the best job we can do. It's nothing personal here. It's about doing what's right for the citizens of DuPage."

County Board member Jim Zay praised Cronin for having "had more of a fair and open process than I've (seen) in my years here."

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