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McCaleb: Is there a silver lining in the latest Metra outrage?

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I’ll play the optimist today.

There actually might be a silver lining in the outrageous severance package given to outgoing Metra CEO Alex Clifford in exchange for his silence.

That’s right. Clifford was paid to keep his mouth shut about some kind of shenanigans at Metra. There’s no other way to look at it.

What those shenanigans are and how big, we don’t know.

Yet.

But the “yet” just might be the silver lining part.

The going-away-quietly present – which could total almost $750,000 over two years – is so egregious that it’s outraged just about everyone in Illinois but the Metra Board members who gave it to Clifford.

The House Mass Transit Committee chaired by state Rep. Deborah Mell has summoned all 11 Metra Board members and Clifford to a hearing Thursday in Chicago to answer questions about this offensive misuse of taxpayer dollars.

A day before the legislative panel meets, the Regional Transportation Authority Board will question Metra Board Chairman Brad O’Halloran about the severance deal. The RTA has financial oversight of Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority.

Clifford had just eight months left on his contract with Metra when he abruptly resigned last month. The contract entitled him to no severance if he resigned and just six months’ salary if he was fired without cause. Yet the Metra Board agreed to pay him about $440,000 for those 14 months.

Plus, Clifford can be paid up to about $307,000 in salary – including two raises – for another year depending on whether he gets another job and what he earns in it. He’s also entitled to up to $75,000 in attorneys fees and $78,000 in moving expenses.

All of this was given to Clifford on the condition that he remain quiet about why he resigned and not say anything disparaging about Metra on his way out the door.

“That’s what concerns me,” said state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo. “It’s obvious it’s got nothing to do with severance. They’re paying him $740,000. This is in lieu of litigation. What I’d like to know is, what allegations were being made that there was going to be litigation over.”

Franks has fought for reform of Metra and the RTA since Clifford’s predecessor at Metra CEO, Phil Pagano, stepped in front of one of his own trains after it was discovered he stole about $475,000 from the agency.

“The guy they brought in to fix the Pagano scandal is getting more than Pagano stole,” Franks said. “Who’s to say what’s disparaging. Is the truth disparaging? Are we not entitled to the truth?”

Jack Schaffer, McHenry County’s Metra Board representative, was the only board member to vote against the severance. He told Northwest Herald reporter Emily Coleman that Clifford was “too honest for Illinois” and was forced out because he wouldn’t look the other way on political patronage jobs.

While Schaffer deserves credit for voting against the package, I agree with Franks that how these regional transportation boards operate needs to be blown up.

“The first accountability starts at the County Board level,” Franks said. “They are the ones who appoint these board members.”

Ever since the Pagano scandal, Franks has pushed the County Board to replace Schaffer on the Metra Board. He’s also fighting the reappointment of former McHenry County Republican Party Chairman Al Jourdan to the RTA Board. Jourdan’s five-year term on the RTA Board expired in April, but County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill has yet to decide on an appointment.

“There’s a culture here that needs to be changed,” Franks said. “This patronage and government-by-cronyism has to stop or we’re doomed.”

Legislators must get to the bottom of the severance deal. They then need to clean up these transportation agencies and overhaul the boards that oversee them.

• • •

Parade and fireworks: Looking for something to do today? Join me at the Crystal Lake Independence Day Parade, which begins at 1 p.m. at City Hall. The parade route takes us 1.7 miles down Dole Avenue, concluding at the grounds of the historic Dole Mansion, home of the Lakeside Legacy Arts Park and the Lakeside Festival, which concludes today.

I’ll be representing the Northwest Herald in the parade, driving a black Camaro convertible generously provided by Gary Lang Auto Group. My wife, mom and kids will be in tow, each passing out candy along the parade route.

The Crystal Lake Chamber of Commerce, the Crystal Lake Lions Club, the city of Crystal Lake and the Northwest Herald joined forces to organize this year’s parade with the help of sponsors Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital, Centegra Health System and Home State Bank.

Special thanks to the countless volunteers who make the parade, and all of the Lakeside Festival, happen. Without the thousands of hours spent organizing these activities behind the scenes, events such as this couldn’t happen.

Following the parade and Lakeside Festival events will be the city’s fireworks display over its namesake lake. Fireworks begin at dusk.

I hope everyone has had a safe and fun holiday weekend.

• Dan McCaleb of Crystal Lake is group editor of Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which includes the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_McCaleb.

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