It’s beginning to look like Chicago’s commuter rail agency will need to draft a few engineers or conductors to do double duty on its Board of Directors.
Friday afternoon, Mayor Rahm Emanuel forced the resignation of Metra Board member Larry Huggins. His departure follows that of two other board members, executive director Alex Clifford, who was fired, and Chairman Brad O’Halloran, who resigned yesterday.
“I spoke with Larry today and we both agreed that he will step down from the Metra board. Larry has a lifetime of service to our city and its neighborhoods,” Emanuel said in a statement. “His decision to leave the Metra board demonstrates his commitment and will allow the agency to begin a new chapter.”
Huggins is the fourth board member to resign in the wake of a payout scandal that leads all the way back to Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan.
“I care deeply about this city and in recent days, it has become clear that it is time for me to step aside and allow Metra to move on,” Huggins said in a statement.
The decision comes just one day after Chairman of the Board Brad O’Halloran told NBC Chicago exclusively that he is resigning his post effective immediately so that Metra can get back on track in the wake of a growing scandal.
The Metra board is now down to just seven members. That’s not enough to elect a new chairman. Which means for now, acting chair Jack Partelow will be running the railroad.
“I think everybody kind of shivered when the next shoe was going to drop,” said Partelow of O’Halloran’s sudden resignation as chairman. “Every time you picked up the newspaper there was something different in there!”
He said the embattled chairman’s departure was appropriate, that there had been “too much pressure” on the whole organization.
“The people out driving the trains and the conductors felt a lot of pressure because of the things, the allegations against just a few,” he said. “By Brad leaving, I think that takes some of the pressure off.”
The allegations, of course, have been well aired. Ousted CEO Alex Clifford said in a now-infamous memo, that he was on the receiving end of political hiring pressure from Springfield. And that O’Halloran worried aloud about whether his instransegence had jeopardized the agency’s funding.
O’Halloran denied the allegations, and in fact, had attempted to hire an outside investigation to fully vet the charges. But the prime candidate for the job, former prosecutor Patrick Collins, backed out, citing an un-specified conflict of interest. Partelow, in charge of the agency for the foreseeable future, says he sees no need to start such a probe until numerous other investigations have run their course. But he conceded that he was troubled by the allegations.
“The fact that it may have happened does trouble me, as a matter of fact,” he said. “Because that’s the kind of thing that we as a whole state get a bad rap on.”
Asked if he believed Clifford’s charges might have had merit, Partelow said he had never seen evidence of any political meddling at the agency. But he added, “This is Chicago Illinois, right? And those things have been known to happen!”
Partelow said he will call a meeting of what remains of the Metra board as soon as possible.
Earlier Friday, Jack Schaffer, one of the surviving board members, wondered aloud if suburban leaders would fill the now-vacant positions, until after the ongoing investigations have run their course.
“I think we have to take a breath and get organized,” he said. “And get Metra on as even a keel as we possibly can.”