A reform bill aimed at Chicago’s mass-transit agencies in the wake of back-to-back scandals at Metra is now law.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 3056 into law last month, which returns more financial oversight power to the Regional Transportation Authority, the umbrella board for Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority. The bill began working its way through the General Assembly last spring following the most recent leadership scandal at Metra and the release of a scathing report concluding the agencies are run by “a wasteful and often dysfunctional bureaucracy.”
The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, requires the RTA to review any bonus for any mass-transit employee in excess of 10 percent of annual salary, and requires Pace, Metra and the CTA to get RTA approval to pay out a severance agreement more than $50,000 or an employment-related settlement agreement more than $200,000. The agencies also must give proposed employment contracts greater than $100,000 to the RTA for review, and the RTA must then submit them to the House Mass Transit and Senate Transportation committees.
Another provision requires the agencies to create a website similar to state government’s Transparency and Accountability portal, so taxpayers can examine expenditures and contracts for themselves.
The reforms come after about a year of negotiations with the service boards, said state Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake. A number of the reforms in the bill, filed by Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, came from legislation filed by Tryon.
“Essentially this goes a long way toward making the operation of Metra and all of the agencies more transparent and puts more teeth in what the RTA can require of transit agencies, and holding them accountable,” Tryon said.
The RTA charges a 0.75 percent sales tax in the collar counties. Two-thirds of it goes to help subsidize mass transit, while the remaining 0.25 percent stays in the individual counties for local infrastructure projects.
Former Metra CEO Phil Pagano killed himself in May 2010 near his rural Crystal Lake home by stepping in front of a Metra train hours before the Metra Board was set to fire him for collecting $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts and other fiscal irregularities. Pagano, who led Metra for two decades, was caught after it was discovered that he forged the former board president’s signature on at least two occasions to collect the payouts.
The Metra Board in 2011 brought in new CEO Alex Clifford, a Marine veteran from the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to help clean up the agency. But it 2013 the board ousted Clifford with eight months remaining on his first contract.
When pressed by state lawmakers angry about the potential $718,000 cost of Clifford’s severance package, Clifford alleged he was forced out because he would not play along with patronage requests made by several Metra Board members at the behest of clout-heavy lawmakers.
In one example, Metra maintained three boxes of more than 800 index cards of people referred for jobs, promotions or raises by public officials and political influencers.
The final report of the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force released earlier this year concluded that state lawmakers in 1983 intentionally weakened much of the RTA’s oversight powers, essentially making Metra, Pace and the CTA independent authorities. Quinn convened the 15-member task force in August 2013 in the wake of Clifford’s revelations.
One reform in the new law requires Metra, Pace and the CTA to provide the RTA with immediate access to financial information. Right now, the law gives them 30 days – an average citizen can file a Freedom of Information Act request and get that data in as little as five days. Another provision institutes a “revolving door” policy that forbids board members or directors from doing business with or accepting employment or compensation from the agencies during and up to a year after their terms.
Other, smaller reform bills have become law in the wake of the Metra scandals, such as stripping future appointees to the mass-transit boards of pension and insurance benefits for part-time work. A bill signed earlier this year empowers collar county boards to remove appointees to boards and commissions, including their representatives to the mass-transit boards. While the Pagano and Clifford scandals resulted in a number of resignations from the Metra Board, state law until recently only allowed the Metra Board itself or the governor to remove members against their will, and only under very restrictive circumstances.
Pagano, who it turns out was supporting two other households besides his own, borrowed so much against his executive compensation package that he died owing Metra at least $127,000. Pagano never revealed why he skimmed the money, but his FBI file, released by the Better Government Association at about the same time the task force released its report, indicated he may have needed the cash to pay for a number of extramarital affairs and for an ailing father.