Decrying the fact that scandals had been plaguing Metra and its board of directors in recent weeks, Gov. Pat Quinn on Tuesday challenged his handpicked transit task force to come up with quick solutions, even as Metra’s new executive director defended his employees.
"We’ve had embarrassments in recent times," Quinn told members of the group, dubbed the Northeast Illinois Public Transit Task Force. "There’s a lack of oversight. A lack of accountability. An inability to remove directors when needed."
The governor said the problems on the Metra board, sparked by the ouster of Executive Director Alex Clifford, had led to a "complete paralysis of governance."
Clifford was removed from his job after complaining of political meddling in Metra’s inner workings. But the agency’s board agreed to pay him a lavish severance package worth well over $800,000 rather than face a potential lawsuit. Critics complained the deal reeked of hush money, and Regional Transportation Authority auditors said the move was foolhardy because Metra had insurance which would have more than covered the cost of any litigation.
"There’s certainly a very strong appearance that, if I were a rider or a taxpayer, I would not have confidence that people are doing things with the interests of riders and taxpayers coming first," said former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, a task force member. "It would be nice to do something to prevent the next scandal, rather than read about it."
Still, as the group spoke of its agenda, it sounded at times as if they were preparing to bite off far more than they could chew. Co-chairman Ann Schneider, the secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the commission would take a holistic approach to transit in general in Chicago, not just Metra. Schneider noted that while other big cities have seen massive growth in their transit systems, ridership in the Chicago area had stagnated.
"Reorganizing and revitalizing the way transit is delivered could start northeastern Illinois down the path of helping to reverse that trend," she said.
The meeting was awkward because the elephant in the room was not in the room at all. Metra officials were not invited to attend, and Acting Executive Director Don Orseno spent most of the session standing in a hallway outside. When he finally entered and took a seat in the back, no one on the commission took public note that anyone from Metra was even in attendance.
"We stand ready to help provide any information that’s needed and we’re going to be a partner in this," Orseno said afterward, declaring the lion’s share of Metra employees were hard working people who tried only to deliver a quality product.
"I think we’re being painted with a bad brush," he said. "As Metra as a whole. I don’t think the employees deserve that."
The commission is to come up with a preliminary set of recommendations for the governor by October 18th.