April 19, 2024

Quinn signs bill stripping mass-transit boards of perks

Law signed in wake of latest Metra scandal

Members of the Metra Board will have benefit package issues of their own with a new law stripping them of future pensions and insurance.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill into law that takes the benefits away from future appointees of Metra, Pace, the Chicago Transit Authority and the Regional Transportation Authority.

The signing Tuesday comes in the wake of the latest scandal at the embattled suburban rail agency. Ousted CEO Alex Clifford, who could receive up to $718,000 from a buyout package approved by the Metra Board, has alleged he was forced out because he would not turn a blind eye to patronage requests, some of which lead up to powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan.

State Rep. Jack Franks, who wrote the bill, called it a step in the right direction toward reforming the boards and improving state government’s ailing fiscal health. Franks and other lawmakers have taken aim at the boards, and Metra in particular, since the 2010 scandal surrounding former Metra CEO Phil Pagano.

“Given the recent scandal at Metra, this legislation is also especially important to truly hitting the ‘reset’ button and ­reforming our transit agencies,” said Franks, D-Marengo. “These part-time officials should serve Illinois because they truly care about making a difference, not because they are interested in a lucrative benefits package.”

House Bill 140 eliminates taxpayer-funded health care, deferred compensation, life insurance and retirement benefits for future appointees. Current board members will continue to have access to them through the ends of their current terms, but will lose them upon reappointment. Board members will not be stripped of the pension benefits they have accrued to that point – the Illinois Constitution forbids existing public pension benefits from being diminished.

Franks’ original bill stripped the seats of their salaries as well, but he dropped the language to get the needed votes to pass it. A member of the RTA board earns $25,000 a year, while a CTA board member gets $20,000, a Metra board member gets $15,000, and a Pace board member gets $10,000.

An April 3 memo from Clifford alleges that board Chairman Brad O’Halloran and board member Larry Huggins wanted him gone because he refused Madigan’s request to give a raise to Metra employee Patrick Ward, a political contributor, and to hire an unnamed person for another job. Clifford also wrote that he refused to fire employees at O’Halloran’s request and opposed contracting decisions by Huggins that Clifford called inappropriate regarding the Englewood Flyover rail bridge on Chicago’s South Side.

Both O’Halloran and Huggins dispute the allegations made by Clifford. Metra would not release his memo to the House Mass Transit Committee looking into the severance package, but relented as lawmakers pressed for it.

The Metra Board voted last month to approve Clifford’s severance package. The sole opposing vote came from McHenry County representative Jack Schaffer, who was so upset by the deal that he voted “hell no.” Schaffer has said Clifford was fired because he was “too honest for Illinois,” and has called the severance deal “hush money.”

Board members hired Clifford in 2011 in an effort to move on from the Pagano scandal. Pagano, who had led the rail agency for 20 years, committed suicide in 2010 by stepping in front of a Metra train near his rural Crystal Lake home hours before the board was set to fire him for improperly collecting $475,000 in vacation payouts and forging the former board chairwoman’s signature at least twice to obtain them.

Then, as now, calls have arisen for Metra board members to step down. Mike McCoy, Kane County’s representative on the Metra Board, resigned last Friday, citing in his resignation letter a lack of the time and desire to continue serving. McCoy was appointed in 2011 to replace Caryl Van Overmeiren, who was asked by then-County Board Chairwoman Karen McConnaughay to step down in the wake of the Pagano scandal.

Franks said he has asked Quinn to begin the process through which the Metra Board could be replaced. State law limits the power to remove board members to either the governor or the board itself, and it does not make it easy.

The governor can remove Metra Board members only if an investigation by the state Executive Inspector General – which was empowered to watch Chicago’s mass-transit agencies as a result of the Pagano scandal – finds a member guilty of corruption, abuse or neglect. The Metra Board itself can remove a member if at least eight of its 11 members find a member guilty of the same.

State Rep. David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, filed a resolution last Friday demanding O’Halloran’s resignation. Local Reps. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, and Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, are chief co-sponsors. House Resolution 521 criticizes O’Halloran for “poor and inappropriate handling of the public funds” related to Clifford’s severance package, in particular its size and the initial secrecy surrounding it.

The resolution does not have binding authority to remove O’Halloran, and lawmakers are not scheduled to reconvene until the fall veto session begins in late October. O’Halloran has said he does not intend to resign.

Of the board’s 11 members, one is appointed by the chairmen of each collar county and the mayor of Chicago. One is appointed by the Cook County Board chairman, and the remaining four are picked by Cook County Board members.