Jeff Ward: Why You Should Care Who Serves on the Metra Board
Why is it some folks can't even say the word "accountability" these days!
“But, Jeff! Why should I give a bleep about the Metra Board or who serves on it? I don’t even use Metra!”
Well, dear reader, that answer is simple. Metra is far from a private company. Whether you choose to ride those commuter trains or not, you’re footing a full 40 percent of their bottom line.
And if that board fails do its job, as we’ve so recently seen, you may as well just throw a couple of your paychecks into that backyard Weber barbecue.
That board’s complete incapacity to implement any kind of reasonable oversight set the stage for former Executive Director Phil Pagano to abscond with $475,000 in unauthorized vacation pay. That’s $190,000 of your money!
Once cornered, Pagano committed suicide by jumping in front of one of his own trains knowing full well how that would affect the engineer.
What’s fascinated me most as the fallout from this theft has unfolded, is how our illustrious Metra Board members have responded to Springfield’s call for their resignations.
First they balked at the mere thought of stepping down, somehow believing they could weather the storm. More than one board member claimed their persecution was the result of a political witch hunt. Right!
Then, apparently, the dog ate their homework.
Before she finally agreed to step down, Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder actually had the nerve to say that Metra’s past problems are the very reason current directors like her should stay on the job. “We’ve worked very hard to correct it,” she said.
So, in essence, because they screwed up so badly, they’re the only ones who can fix it? Incompetence as job security! You gotta love that logic.
Though DuPage County Metra Board appointee and chairman Carole Doris had the good sense to resign early, her excuses were no better than Mulder’s. “There was no reason to think he was doing that,” Doris told the Daily Herald, “It didn’t appear he was living beyond his means.”
Oh! So, we should only suspect stupid executive directors of duplicity? If I was siphoning money from my company, the last thing I’d do is buy a Bentley.
But the worst example of this kind of Teflon thinking comes from Kane County's former Metra Board member, Caryl Van Overmeiren. “Pagano was very secretive, and when he was asked to provide things it was very minimal,” Van Overmeiren said, “He managed that whole agency by intimidation and embarrassment.”
Pardon my keen perception of the obvious, but shouldn’t that have been your first clue? So much for Doris’ contention there was no need to be suspicious! And wouldn’t it have been in the board’s best interest to remove any executive director who’s “secretive” and rules by “intimidation?”
Sometimes serving on a board means making the tough decisions.
Then Van Overmeiren tried to take credit for a new Metra policy requiring pay and benefit changes go before the board for approval. Call me crazy, but shouldn’t that have been the case from Day One?
And you know what that all-too-obvious procedural maneuver cost Illinois taxpayers? A cool million! That’s right folks! The Metra Board doled out $2 million to consultants to determine how Pagano stole the money and then another half-million on spin control. Remember! We pick up 40 percent of that tab.
Wouldn’t it have been a heck of a lot cheaper if we just let Pagano get away with it?
This utter lack of Metra board accountability makes me want to run naked and screaming down the Downers Grove portion of Ogden Avenue with “The end is near” painted on my chest in bright red letters. (Don’t worry! Burr Ridge Patch Editor Sabrina Wu said she’d bail me out.)
Did any of these board members do anything overtly “wrong?” No! But this kind of blind incompetence bothers me far more than any nefariousness. I’d feel a lot better if the board had been in cahoots with Pagano all along.
And that accountability doesn’t end with the appointees. The appointers should be feeling some of the heat, as well! It took the Springfield threat of removing their appointing powers before some of our county chairmen suddenly got religion.
Suburban mayors and former county board members generally haven't had to deal with $600 million budgets and thousands of employees. But that doesn’t stop our county chairs from setting up their cronies and then attempting to absolve themselves when it blows up in their faces.
Who says “no” to a 15-grand-a-year-plus-benefits patronage plum?
Ah! But there is one bright spot in all this. Dan Cronin, your new DuPage County Board chairman, just pushed through some legislation that allows Patchland county boards to demand financial and other pertinent information from the appointed boards they oversee.
It doesn’t yet apply to multi-county boards like Metra, but if I were Mr. Cronin, that would be my very next step. If I’m going to have to take heat for my appointees, then I want to be right there looking over their shoulders!
Here’s our bottom line. When a baseball team loses, they don’t fire the fans, the players or the owners. They fire the manager! When a board fails to understand the simple concept of oversight and then spends five times what was stolen to make it “right,” in the immortal words of White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, “They gone!”
Editor's note: See Marni Pyke's outstanding reporting on the Metra Board in a number of articles in the Daily Herald.