Koehler to Franks: Schaffer stays put

WOODSTOCK – McHenry County Board Chairman Ken Koehler in no uncertain terms turned down state Rep. Jack Franks’ request to replace Jack Schaffer as the county’s Metra Board of Directors representative.

Franks, D-Marengo, made the request to Koehler and all 24 County Board members in a May 3 letter, which came on the heels of several bills aimed at replacing or eliminating the entire 11-member Metra board in the wake of the scandal surrounding former Executive Director Phil Pagano. Koehler rejected the idea in a May 10 response that praised Schaffer’s service and questioned Franks’ motives.

“Suburban Rail [sic] is important here in McHenry County and we need to get Metra thoroughly back on track,” Koehler wrote. “The number one priority should be first and foremost to protect public transit. I believe we all need to work together to get this done, and I believe that [Schaffer’s] continued service on the Metra Board is a real plus.”

Schaffer, a former state senator and former head of the McHenry County Republican Party, was appointed county representative to the Metra board in 2006. He has served as Metra board treasurer since 2009.

Franks has pushed for the ouster of the Metra board and further reforms since Pagano’s death. Pagano committed suicide May 7, 2010 by stepping in front of a Metra train near his rural Crystal Lake home, hours before the Metra board was poised to fire him for fiscal irregularities during his 20 years as director.

Investigations later revealed that Pagano inappropriately took at least $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts. Critics and government watchdog groups, Franks and other lawmakers accused the Metra board of lax oversight and began clamoring for reform and a clean sweep of the board.

Former Metra Board Chairwoman Carole Doris resigned last month. And on Monday, Kane County Board Chairwoman Karen McConnaughay announced that she has asked her county’s Metra representative, Caryl Van Overmeiren, to step down.

Koehler wrote that he suspected that Franks has “another agenda at work,” but he would not elaborate. Schaffer was GOP chairman when Franks won his first term in office. During Franks’ successful 2010 re-election, an ad attacking Franks appeared on a billboard owned by Schaffer.

Franks said Monday that reform, not political payback against Schaffer, fueled his reform efforts. Among the allegations he made to prove his point was the Federal Transit Administration fining Metra $90,000 last month for failing to submit proper documentation for lobbyists.

“I’ve exposed Metra as a bastion of corruption and patronage that must be reformed, and unfortunately, Chairman Koehler wants to keep the good-old-boy system at the expense of our taxpayers,” Franks said. “Chairman Koehler is trying to make this a political issue, and this has nothing to do with politics. This goes way beyond rhetoric.”

But Schaffer said he begs to differ. He said he believes Franks’ efforts stem directly from the billboard ad on Route 47 in Woodstock, which alleged that Franks collected almost $1 million from lobbyists, unions and lawyers.

“To the extent that he’s attacking everyone on the board, that bothers me, but if he’s strictly after me, as a former legislator, I’m offended by it,” Schaffer said. “Voters elect people to go out and represent them, not to pursue petty vendettas. The state has plenty of other problems to focus on.”

Bills aimed at reforming Metra have met with limited success in Springfield.

Franks and Sen. Susan Garrett, D-Lake Forest, passed a bill this year creating new and stronger ethics for mass transit employees and empowering the state inspector general to investigate the agencies. But a Franks bill to eliminate compensation and benefits for Metra, Pace, the Regional Transportation Authority and the Chicago Transit Authority failed in committee.

A subsequent Franks bill to combine the boards into one uncompensated board has sat since March 17 in the House Rules Committee, where bills not called for votes often are sent to die with the end of the General Assembly.

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