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County starts process to find new Metra rep

Published: Thursday, March 27, 2014 4:49 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, March 27, 2014 11:45 p.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board has started the process by which it will appoint a successor to Jack Schaffer as the county’s representative on the Metra Board.

It put out the call Wednesday for applicants interested in representing the county on the Metra Board, which handles suburban rail, and the Pace Board in charge of Chicago-area bus service. The four-year terms for both expire June 30.

County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock, said the processes will be open and transparent, similar to the process by which members appointed the county’s new representative to the Regional Transportation Authority Board last year. Candidates will be interviewed in open session by a panel which will make a recommendation for a full County Board vote.

Given the publicity Metra has received in recent years – most of it lousy – Hill anticipates receiving a decent number of resumes.

“I think we’ll get a good pool of applicants,” Hill said Thursday.

Schaffer, a former state senator, said more than a year ago that he does not intend to seek a third term. Crystal Lake Mayor Aaron Shepley represents the county on the Pace Board, but could not be reached for comment as to whether he will seek reappointment.

Metra has been rocked by several high-profile corruption scandals over the past four years, and questions have arisen regarding ethics at the CTA and RTA. The RTA Board has financial oversight of the three smaller Chicago-area mass transit boards.

Former Metra CEO Phil Pagano killed himself in 2010 near his rural Crystal Lake home by stepping in front of a Metra train hours before his board was set to fire him for collecting $475,000 in unauthorized vacation payouts and other fiscal irregularities. 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.

The Metra Board in 2011 hired Alex Clifford as CEO in an effort to clean up the agency. But the Metra Board in June 2013 approved a generous exit package for Clifford, with eight months remaining on his first contract. When pressed by angry state lawmakers, Clifford alleged he was forced out because he would not turn a blind eye to patronage requests.

While Schaffer was accused with the rest of the board of lax oversight in the wake of the Pagano scandal, he found redemption of sorts in reacting to the Clifford scandal.

He was the only Metra Board member to vote against the severance package – he voted “hell, no” in the roll call – and publicly pressed the now-ousted board president for full disclosure of the related expenses.

Metra has taken criticism for poor performance during the recent cold and snowy winter, which the agency blames on antiquated equipment and funding shortfalls.

The goings-on at Metra, the RTA and CTA have inspired laws aimed at reducing corruption and improving accountability, many of them filed or sponsored by McHenry County lawmakers.

The latest, House Bill 3659, seeks to close a loophole that allowed CTA appointees to hold other government offices or jobs and double-dip. The bill, filed by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, is now in the Senate after clearing the House last week on a 110-0 vote.

Franks, who has repeatedly taken aim at Metra, the RTA and the County Board since the Pagano scandal, said he is cautiously optimistic the County Board will fill the Metra seat with a qualified individual through an ethical process.

The County Board last December appointed Blake Hobson of Lakewood to represent the county on the RTA Board, replacing longtime former McHenry County Republican Party Chairman Al Jourdan.

“They did a pretty good job [with the RTA], but I hope this is as apolitical as possible,” Franks said.

Franks’ latest bill was filed in response to an unsuccessful attempt last year by Gov. Pat Quinn to appoint Frank Zuccarelli to a vacant CTA seat – Zuccarelli was making more than $186,000 as supervisor of Thornton Township.

The law forbidding members of the Metra and RTA boards from holding other government employment does not apply to Pace – with one exception. Pace Board members must be a current mayor or village president in the area they represent, or a former mayor or village president residing in the area.

The County Board’s appointees to Metra and Pace will not get pension or health insurance benefits, which were stripped by another Franks bill signed into law.

What it means

The McHenry County Board is seeking applicants for people interested in representing the county on the Metra Board for a four-year term to expire June 30, 2017.

Application forms are available online at www.co.mchenry.il.us, or at the County Board office, 667 Ware Road, Woodstock. The deadline to receive applications is 2 p.m. May 1.

Applications also are being sought for appointment to the Pace Board, but a Pace Board member under state law must be a current or former mayor or village president.

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