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Bill seeks to strengthen RTA oversight

Published: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 4:57 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 28, 2014 11:55 p.m. CDT

Another bill aimed at bringing reform and accountability to Chicago’s mass-transit agencies in the wake of high-profile scandals at Metra is headed toward becoming law.

Senate Bill 3056, which cleared the House on a 113-0 vote last week, seeks to return more financial oversight power to the Regional Transportation Authority, which is the umbrella board for Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, also requires the boards to create an online portal similar to state government’s, so taxpayers can examine its expenditures and contracts for themselves.

State Rep. Mike Tryon, who had filed several House bills containing the reforms passed in the Senate bill, lauded their advancement. The House made minor changes that must first go back to the Senate for a concurrence vote before going to Gov. Pat Quinn.

“What we need to do is make sure ethics and transparency laws are in place to provide for good government and to give more oversight to the oversight agency,” Tryon said.

The bill 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 give a severance agreement in excess of $50,000 or an employment-related settlement agreement in excess of $200,000. The agencies also must give proposed employment contracts greater than $100,000 to the RTA for review. The RTA in turn must submit them to the House Mass Transit and Senate Transportation committees for their review.

Senate Bill 3056 cleared the Senate on a 51-0 vote on April 1, the same day that a task force convened by Quinn released a scathing indictment of Chicago-area mass transit, which it alleged was run by “a wasteful and often dysfunctional bureaucracy.” Quinn convened the 15-member Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force last August following yet another high-profile scandal at Metra, which runs suburban commuter rail.

The report concluded that state lawmakers in 1983 intentionally weakened much of the RTA’s oversight powers, essentially making Metra, Pace and the CTA independent authorities. A 2008 attempt to strengthen RTA oversight in the wake of a financial crisis and declining ridership did not go far enough, the report stated.

Two years later, a corruption scandal brought down Metra’s longtime executive director, and his replacement was forced out because he was, as McHenry County’s representative on the Metra Board later described him, “too honest for Illinois.”

Former CEO Phil Pagano killed himself in 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. He was caught after it was discovered that he forged the former board president’s signature on at least two occasions to collect the payouts.

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.

The Metra Board brought in new CEO Alex Clifford to help clean up the agency, but ousted him in 2013 with eight months remaining on his first contract. When pressed by angry state lawmakers about the potential $718,000 cost of the 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 cited by the report, Metra maintained three boxes of more than 800 index cards of people referred for jobs, promotions or raises by public officials and political influencers.

Both the Pagano and Clifford scandals resulted in a number of resignations on the Metra Board. State law empowers only the Metra Board itself or the governor to remove members against their will, and only under very restrictive circumstances.

As an example of how the RTA’s oversight was gutted, Tryon pointed out the reason why Senate Bill 3056 requires Metra, Pace and the CTA to provide immediate access to financial information. Under current law, the agencies have 30 days to report it to the RTA. A regular person is entitled under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain it in as little as five days.

“This is strong legislation that should help turn things around at the RTA and its service boards and help restore public trust in these agencies,” Tryon said.

Among the task force’s recommendations is to abolish the RTA altogether and merge the three mass-transit boards into a single entity. The proposal, if it ever gets pushed in Springfield, is likely to face opposition from McHenry County and other suburban counties, which have seen previous attempts to tinker with the power structure as a way to funnel more money to the CTA.

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.

You can read the text of Senate Bill 3056 at www.ilga.gov, and the reform recommendations of the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force at www.dot.il.gov/nepublictransit.html.

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