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Metra Board votes interim CEO as permanent chief

MetrCEO DOrseno | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

Metra CEO Don Orseno | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 31, 2014 10:45PM



Metra Board members Friday unanimously named interim CEO Don Orseno as their permanent CEO, to serve “at the pleasure of the board” and initially without the elaborate contract of his predecessor.

After interviewing three other candidates — from the West Coast, Boston and the Chicago area — board members realized “we wanted to have the very best and Don Orseno was the very best,” said Board member Arlene Mulder.

Orseno will be making $262,500, retroactive to last Aug. 27, when he was named interim CEO. The amount is higher than the $250,000 salary advertised with the post, but is equivalent to the retroactive raise that former CEO Alex Clifford was given as part of his controversial June 21 separation agreement.

The 11-member board, packing six members with less than six months experience each, interviewed candidates and discussed them for nearly six hours Friday before announcing Orseno was their choice to fill Clifford’s spot permanently.

Orseno has held so many different railroad jobs over 40 years — from trainman to chief operating officer — that “his resume almost looks like he was working his way to this job since the age of 19,” said board member Jack Schaffer. “There’s nothing at Metra this man hasn’t done and that he doesn’t understand,’’ Schaffer said.

Orseno led the agency through a brutal Jan. 6-7 snow storm and cold snap when ice so repeatedly jammed up train switches that scores of trains were cancelled.

However, board members said, a later bout of sub-zero temperatures — and no cancelled trains — proved what an extraordinary event the earlier storm was and reinforced Orseno’s value to Metra.

“I spent a lot of time thinking in the last couple of weeks, `What if Don did not exist?’ ” said new board member Marty Oberman. “He has proven himself.’’

Oberman said Orseno has deep knowledge of the nation’s second largest commuter railroad and its complex relationship with other railroads and freight lines. An outsider would need “months if not years” to get up to speed with him, Oberman said.

For the moment, Oberman said, Orseno will work “at the pleasure of the board,” without a contract. That’s something many top executives are often willing to do, he said.

“Whether it needs to be a written contract remains an open question. I don’t know that we feel the need for it,’’ Oberman said.

Board members also will be deciding on an “objective evaluation system” for reviewing Orseno’s work, Oberman said. The board was criticized for not having such criteria in place for Clifford.

Clifford’s June 21 buyout, worth up to $871,000, ignited a firestorm of scrutiny and investigations, including a state inspector general probe of Clifford’s charges that two former board members orchestrated Clifford’s ouster because he would not “play ball” on contracts and patronage.

Even Gov. Pat Quinn got involved, appointing a special taskforce to look at ethics questions raised by the Clifford mess, as well as whether Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace should be overhauled, consolidated or reorganized. The task force’s final recommendations are due Mar. 31.

After coming from “three generations of railroaders,’’ Orseno said he’s always wanted to work for a railroad.

Since joining Metra more than 30 years ago, he said, “it’s always been my goal to be the head of this agency. I believe that dream has come true.’’

Orseno promised to put customers first and improve communications with them following complaints that riders were not notified quickly enough about train delays during the Jan. 6-7 storm. New updates to the Metra train tracker system should debut by midsummer, he said.

“We have to make sure [riders] have the best possible experience and everything else will fall into place,’’ Orseno said.

Email rrossi@suntimes.com

Twitter @rosalindrossi



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