Plan would oust 5 from Metra Board

Five Metra Board members will be “retiring” by next summer under a housecleaning plan quietly hashed out last month over the scandal surrounding former executive director Phil Pagano.

The members – one of whom has since resigned – are identified in a memo recapping a June 15 meeting of collar county board chairmen and senior Democratic state senators in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office.

The June 22 memo from the four senators identifies McHenry County’s representative and board Treasurer Jack Schaffer, whose term is set to expire in 2014. Under the agreement, the five representatives would resign by the June 30, 2012, end of the state fiscal year, and would not be allowed to hold officer positions once the vacant chairman position is filled.

The memo detailing the meeting was released Friday by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who has been calling for the entire board’s ouster, and singling out Schaffer, since the Pagano scandal came to light last year.

Franks said he was outraged that the board members in question were not being asked to step down immediately.

“This is just so egregious. There’s no gray area here. The facts are indisputable. The taxpayers have had to pay because of their negligence, we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and enough is enough,” Franks said.

Pagano, 60, 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 over fiscal irregularities during his 20 years as director.

Investigations later revealed that Pagano inappropriately took at least $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts and that he forged former board Chairwoman Carole Doris’ signature at least twice to collect. Watchdog groups and lawmakers accused the Metra board of lax oversight and began clamoring for reform and a clean sweep of the board.

Four board members, including Doris, have resigned this year. State Sen. Susan Garrett, D-Lake Forest, said the board members chosen at the meeting to step down were around long enough to bear some responsibility for not watching Pagano closely enough. She called the 2012 deadline a compromise so that the board is not made up entirely of newcomers.

Metra spokespeople said the agency would not comment on the issue.

“We definitely wanted to get a majority turned over, and we got a start with Carole Doris and others,” Garrett said. “It’s not exactly what we wanted but it’s pretty close. I think the county board chairmen heard loud and clear that they need to get new blood on the Metra board.”

But Schaffer, a former Republican state senator, said late Friday that he suspects the Republican collar county chairmen might renege. Preckwinkle in a subsequent letter opposed dismissing one of the five, who is appointed by the mayor of Chicago.

“I’m not sure the Republican county board chairmen would support that. It’s either all or nothing for them, I think,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer said he suspected that politics was at play behind the efforts against the Metra board. He alleged that the senators involved were getting back at the board for Democratic Sen. Martin Sandoval’s unsuccessful effort to replace Pagano as director.

Each collar county board chairman and Chicago’s mayor get to appoint one member to the Metra board. Five more are appointed by the Cook County Board – one by the president and the remaining four by its board members. All four vacancies caused by resignations have been filled, but the Metra board has not yet chosen a new chairman from its ranks.

Among the meeting’s attendees was McHenry County Board Chairman Ken Koehler, R-Crystal Lake. The meeting took place a month after he rebuffed Franks’ demands for Schaffer’s ouster. Koehler in a May 10 letter to Franks called Schaffer’s continued service “a real plus” and he accused Franks of having “another agenda at work.”

Koehler could not be reached for comment Friday.

“When I had written Chairman Koehler, he responded that Jack Schaffer had to stay and was very valuable, and weeks after refusing my demand, he agreed to it,” Franks said.

The other board members singled out in the memo are Chicago representative and vice-chairman Larry Huggins, Lake County representative James LaBelle, and suburban Cook County representative Arlene Mulder. Kane County representative Caryl Van Overmeiren is also named, but she resigned this month under pressure from County Board Chairwoman Karen McConnaughay.

Metra reform has gained some traction in Springfield. Franks and Garrett passed a bill strengthening ethics guidelines for mass transit employees and empowering the state inspector general to investigate violations.

A bill by Franks to eliminate compensation and benefits for the entire Regional Transportation Authority, of which Metra is a part, failed in committee. Another Franks bill to combine all four RTA boards into one is stalled in the House Rules Committee.

But the memo states that attendees of the meeting agree to support legislation in the fall veto session to place all transit board purchasing and contracting under the oversight of a state procurement agent.

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