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Two Metra scandals one too many for senior board member

The second Metra scandal was the charm for the resignation of board member Larry Huggins.

Huggins, who since 1997 has held the seat appointed by the Mayor of Chicago, stepped down last week at Rahm Emanuel's request. His resignation came the day after that of former board Chairman Brad O'Halloran, both of whom were fingered by ousted CEO Alex Clifford in a scathing memo accusing them of trying to force him out for not playing along with patronage hiring and contracting.

The memo was pried loose in the wake of an ongoing inquiry over the $718,000 golden parachute that the board approved for Clifford – a deal that McHenry County's rep on the board, and the sole opposing vote, called hush money.

But if talk of Huggins' resignation sounds familiar, it should, because it was discussed two years ago during a proposed house-cleaning in the wake of the scandal surrounding Clifford's predecessor, the late Phil Pagano.

Pagano in May 2010 stepped in front of a Metra train near his rural Crystal Lake home, just hours before the board was set to fire him after 20 years for fiscal irregularities. An investigation later revealed that Pagano collected more than $475,000 in vacation payouts to which he was not entitled – on at least two occasions he forged former Chairwoman Carole Doris' signature to obtain them.

Accusations flew that the 11-member Metra Board was asleep at the switch when it came to supervising Pagano and had to go, and several lawmakers started turning up the heat by filing bills that would put Metra and the other mass-transit boards under something resembling adult supervision. Representatives of the collar counties, each of which get to appoint one member, met in June 2011 with four senior Democratic state senators at the offices of Cook County Board Chairwoman Toni Preckwinkle.

A memo from that meeting outlined an agreement reached in which five representatives would "retire" by summer 2012, because they were around long enough to bear some responsibility for not watching Pagano closely enough. They included Huggins, McHenry County representative and Metra Board Treasurer Jack Schaffer, Cook County representative Arlene Mulder, Kane County representative Caryl Van Overmeiren, and Lake County representative James LaBelle.

Doris, who represented DuPage County, had resigned three months prior to the meeting. Van Overmeiren stepped down a month after the meeting at the request of then-Kane County Board Chairwoman (and now state Senator) Karen McConnaughay.

But former McHenry County Board Chairman Ken Koehler did not ask for Schaffer's resignation, and said he would not bow to what he called political pressure from state Rep, Jack Franks, a vocal critic of the area's mass-transit boards. Likewise, Mulder is still on the Metra Board at the pleasure of the Cook County Board, and may be a contender to be the next Metra Board chairman – the third in two years if you're keeping track. The Lake County Board replaced LaBelle earlier this year after his term expired.

(Since the Metra Board's expansion in 2008 to 11 members, one each comes from the collar counties, the Cook County Board chairman and the Chicago mayor, and the Cook County Board gets four more based on geography.)

The concern of the Republican suburbs, my sources had told me at the time, was that they didn't want to enable a Chicago and Cook County power play by asking their members to step down and creating a power vaccum that Chicago would swoop in and fill. The suburbs had traditionally held the Metra Board chairmanship, and were protective of it as a bulwark against the city-dominated CTA and Pace.

Critics pointed to the fact that Chicago did not participate in the meeting, and that Preckwinkle in a subsequent letter opposed dismissing Huggins.

Regardless, critics' fears came to pass. After a year and a half with an acting chairman, the board elected O'Halloran, a Cook County Board appointee, in November 2012.

This next selection process could be equally protracted. Four Metra Board members have stepped down over this mess, leaving seven. Eight votes are needed under Metra's rules to elect a chairman. The other two resignations, just like the Pagano scandal, came from the the representatives of Kane and DuPage counties.

Of course, this begs the question that if the Metra Board is as messed up as a soup sandwich regardless of whether a city Democrat or a suburban Republican is holding the reins, maybe it's time for the Metra Board to go bye-bye in favor of something else. Bills filed in the past went nowhere, and we'll see, like Huggins' resignation, whether the second scandal is the tipping point.

As for Schaffer, the Clifford scandal has offered him redemption of sorts from the Pagano era. He was the sole opposing vote to Clifford's severance – he voted "hell, no" – and has since been blowing the whistle on the whole sordid mess behind it. His term expires next June and he said he does not intend to seek reappointment.

This doesn't mean that the McHenry County Board won't have any exciting and fun-filled debates regarding mass transit until next summer. It's due to make an appointment to the board of the Regional Transportation Authority, which has financial oversight of Metra. Longtime GOP powerbroker Al Jourdan's term expired back in April, but he is still serving until a vote is taken, which is legal under state statute.

What's County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill's plan? Pick up tomorrow's paper.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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