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Schaffer: Don't send a 'cream puff' to RTA

Says gaining Metra traction tough

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013 12:06 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013 12:10 a.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – Metra Board representative Jack Schaffer’s routine presentation to the McHenry County Board of Metra’s annual budget Tuesday was anything but.

But then again, not much at Metra and the Regional Transportation Authority over the past year has been routine.

Schaffer touched briefly on the 2014 budget – $935.9 million with no fare increases or service cuts – then used the forum offered to him as a chance to impart some passing wisdom before his term expires next year.

First and foremost was the County Board’s impending vote to replace Al Jourdan as its voting member on the Regional Transportation Authority Board: “Don’t send a cream puff.”

“They will walk all over him or her. Send someone who knows how to fight,” Schaffer warned.

Schaffer, a former state senator and county Republican Party chairman, was appointed to the Metra Board in 2006. His term expires June 30, and he will not seek reappointment.

Metra this year found itself embroiled in its second leadership scandal in four years, both of which resulted in resignations of board members and calls for reform of the four Chicago-area mass-transit boards.

Former Executive Director Phil Pagano killed himself by stepping in front of a train near his rural Crystal Lake home in 2010, hours before the board was set to fire him for improperly collecting at least $475,000 in unused vacation time. He borrowed so much against his executive compensation package that he died owing Metra at least $127,000.

The director brought in to clean up the agency, Alex Clifford, was let go by the board earlier this year, with Schaffer casting the sole opposing vote. A confidentiality agreement over his severance didn’t survive lawmaker outrage over the possible $718,000 price tag, and it became public that Clifford alleged he was being forced out because he would not turn a blind eye to political patronage requests by Metra’s new board president and a fellow member, both of whom have since resigned.

Schaffer’s reputation and that of the board was tarnished by the Pagano scandal, but Schaffer earned positive press with his opposition to the Clifford deal, which he called Tuesday an attempt by Chicago machine politicians to “turn [Metra] into another political swamp.”

Schaffer told County Board members that they – and the other collar counties – will have to appoint fighters to Metra as well if they are to get more from suburban rail, such as long-sought service increases and new stations.

He also warned that while next year’s budget does not include fare increases, they will be inevitable under the current funding formula. Metra raised fares last year and again in February for 10-ride tickets.

“If you want additional services ... you’re going to have to fight for it, and it’s that simple,” Schaffer said.

Ten McHenry County residents have applied to replace Jourdan, who ran the county GOP for 30 years, on the board of the RTA. The RTA has financial oversight of Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority.

The RTA has received its share of scrutiny in recent months. It was criticized for its softball hearing over the Clifford deal, and two members resigned in August for unrelated reasons – one over a conflict of interest and the other over legal troubles. A panel appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn in August is investigating how to clean up the mass-transit agencies.

Jourdan’s term expired in April, but ongoing turmoil and a nixed proposal to merge the RTA with another agency has twice delayed the appointment process. Candidates will be interviewed by a County Board panel on Nov. 22.

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