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Brown: Metra Board selection process based on distrust

Updated: September 5, 2013 6:56AM



The resignations of Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran and three other board members have brought attention to where it probably should have been earlier: how we pick the commuter rail agency’s board.

What we find is an obscure and intricately-balanced appointment process borne from the historic distrust between city and suburbs, Democrats and Republicans, over how to divide the region’s scarce mass transit dollars.

From its inception in 1983, the Metra Board was designed to be suburban — and therefore Republican — dominated, as a counter-weight to city Democrats controlling the CTA.

Because of the ever-increasing Democratic influence in the suburbs, however, Metra’s board now has more of a Republican tilt than outright dominance with the balance of power increasingly in doubt.

It’s still unclear how much that political dynamic has to do with the scandal surrounding the Metra Board’s decision to grant a $718,000 severance agreement to former executive director Alex Clifford in the midst of his allegations of patronage pressures.

But I expect it will have plenty of influence on where we go from here.

In fact, even with Friday’s resignation of Larry Huggins, an appointee of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Metra Board is left with four of its seven remaining members having been appointed by Democrats.

As it happens, one of those Democrats picked a Republican as his county’s Metra representative. That leaves Republicans in the majority for now as the Metra Board tries to decide how to stabilize a situation with no chief executive in charge and increasing calls for the entire board to resign.

The appointment process that some state legislators now want to overhaul was reconfigured as recently as 2008, when the Metra Board was expanded to 11 from seven members. Two seats were added from the collar counties so that each could have its own, and two more were added for suburban Cook.

Since then, the suburban Cook seats for the first time have been selected from within geographic districts by a weighted vote of the county commissioners who represent portions of that district, another wrinkle that’s given added influence to Democrats.

Here’s how that plays out in the real world.

The five collar counties—DuPage, Will, Lake, Kane and McHenry—each get one member chosen by their county board chairmen, or county executive as the top dog is known in Will.

All except Will are governed by Republicans and their representatives chosen accordingly.

Two of those board members, DuPage’s Paul Darley and Kane’s Mike McCoy, have resigned since the controversy erupted.

Remaining are McHenry’s Jack Schaffer, a former state senator from Crystal Lake, and Lake’s Norman Carlson, a retired Arthur Andersen executive.

Will County Executive Lawrence Walsh is a Democrat, but he picked former Will County Republican Chairman Jack Partelow, a retired Dun and Bradstreet executive, as his Metra representative.

Why would he do that? Well, as long as Republicans are in the majority anyhow, it gives him a better chance of having somebody in power looking out for his county’s interests, to wit, Partelow now takes over as acting chairman with O’Halloran’s resignation.

Emanuel and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle each get one appointment to the Metra Board.

With Huggins nudged into resigning Friday, it will be interesting to see if Emanuel is in any hurry to replace him. Preckwinkle’s appointee, Stanley Rakestraw, co-founder of SCR Medical Transportation, has shown no indication of following suit.

Former Arlington Heights Mayor Arlene Mulder, a Metra veteran and a Republican, was chosen from the GOP-dominated northwest suburban district. Commissioner Timothy Schneider, a Streamwood Republican, controls a majority of the weighted vote and nominated her.

Labor lawyer William Widmer III, a Democrat, was nominated by Commissioner Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat, to represent a Metra district that includes north and portions of west suburban Cook. Republicans actually control a slight majority of the district’s weighted vote, but Suffredin has the largest single chunk.

South Holland Mayor Don DeGraff represents the south suburbs for Metra after being selected by Commissioner Joan Murphy, a Crestwood Democrat. DeGraff used to vote mostly in Republican primaries, but has voted with Democrats in six of seven primaries since 2004. He tells me he’s neither.

Then there’s the southwest suburban seat just vacated by O’Halloran, who was picked by Commissioner Elizabeth “Liz” Doody Gorman, a Republican, although his own qualifications as a Republican are suspect. Fellow Commissioner Jeff Tobolski, also a Republican, has slightly more of the weighted vote, but not as much clout.

My count: six Republican seats, five Democrats. Watch any “reform” plan to see how that would be affected.

Email: markbrown@suntimes.com Twitter: @MarkBrownCST



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