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Steinberg: Can we measure the Metra mess?

Metrchairman Brad O'Halloran speaks front  Illinois House Mass Transit Committee hearing Bilandic Building June 11. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

Metra chairman Brad O'Halloran speaks in front of the Illinois House Mass Transit Committee at a hearing at the Bilandic Building on June 11. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 16, 2013 6:11AM

How long is the shoreline of Chicago? That’s a more complicated question than it sounds. If you eyeball it on a AAA map, using the distance key, it looks about 24 miles from Rogers Beach Park, at the far north, to Calumet Park, at far south.

But the more accurate answer — as anyone who is mathematically savvy could tell you — is that when calculating the shore of Chicago, or any coast, the final length depends upon the unit of measurement you start with.

What does that mean? If you took a 10-yard piece of string and walked the beach, you’d get one answer. And if you took a foot-long ruler, measuring every outcropping and inlet, you’d get another, bigger figure. And if you took a measuring stick an inch long, following every bump and notch along the sand, you’d get a third, even longer distance.

None of them is “correct”; all depend on how finely you focus. Which has an echo with the news industry, as I was reminded Friday when two concurrent events took place.

First, I was talking to the governor’s press secretary about a story that should be published this week.

We also talked about my Friday column, suggesting that Quinn fire the entire Metra board, something Metra’s staff attorney suggested was a possibility. The governor’s aide surprised me by saying his office was indeed looking into whether Quinn could legally do that — can’t just take the lawyer’s word.

“Probably a good idea,” I said. “The Metra lawyer looks like he’s about 12 years old.”

Minutes later, my bosses told me that I was now free to jump into Voices, the newspaper’s blog, a kind of online hootenanny.

Hmmm ... I mused. What to say, what to say... Well ,you know ... this bit about the governor’s office seeing if it can fire the Metra board. Why .... that could fall into the rough category of “news,” could it not?

So I wrote a post headlined, “Gov. Quinn’s office is looking into firing Metra board.” Pulled back the digital catapult and flung my facts out into the blogosphere, then sat back, happy. Hildy Johnson rides again.

An hour later, the governor’s office got back to me. He could not, it turns out, fire the Metra board, not without an official report from the inspector general. And a hearing. So the governor’s hands are tied.

So I dutifully blogged that, too, not exactly correcting my earlier post — it was correct, they were looking into it — but negating it. Nope, can’t do that. Quips about Quinn and inertia hovered around my head like mosquitoes, and I fanned them away. Too easy.

The significance of news, like the length of a shore, depends on the unit used, only with news, it’s not distance but time. On the 24-hour measure that newspapers once used, the governor’s weighing whether he could personally give the board the bum’s rush might not make it to the public at all; it might fizzle before it could be disseminated. Now, in the second-by-second online world of Twitter et al., it provided minutes of high drama.

Is that good? It certainly is the trend. Newsweek magazine died, in part, because the idea of waiting to take your news with a dose of perspective is as appealing as 8-track tapes. Nobody wants too long a perspective — the sun becomes a supernova, eventually, scours the earth, and nothing matters.

But too short a frame is like measuring a coast with a micrometer. You get an answer; “Chicago’s shore is 437 miles long.” Accurate, for that scale, but of no real use to anyone.

The damning thing about details is, it’s hard to know which ones are important — maybe Quinn will, in a fit of industry, prod the inspector general to issue that report, hold that hearing, and then boot out the entire backscratching, obfuscating Metra board. Then you heard it here first.

Or maybe not. I’ll tell you what I thought, sitting a row behind Metra chairman Brad O’Halloran as Metra’s outside counsel, legal ace Joe Gagliardo patiently explained House Speaker Mike Madigan’s First Amendment rights to pressure the agency to give a raise to his pal: If this is the bright spin that their crackerjack lawyer is putting on the situation, sitting in front of a house committee, then what can the rotten truth under that rock possibly be? Because even the official version smells pretty bad, and they’ve been perfuming it for weeks.

Here’s my question. Metra was a sinkhole of corruption. That’s why Phil Pagano leapt in front of a train in 2010. Alex Clifford was brought on to fix things; it seemed he was trying. O’Halloran joined in December 2012. By March he was pushing Clifford out. Why? He claims it’s because Clifford was chafing under the board’s direction. Where’s the evidence of that? The $714,000 question is: What soured O’Halloran on Clifford? Whatever it was, Metra thought it worth stuffing half a million dollars in Clifford’s mouth to shut him up about it. Pick your time frame — a week, a month, a year. This isn’t going away soon.

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