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Brown; RTA proposes way to avoid future Metra fiascos. Guess who they want to get more power.

Updated: September 22, 2013 6:41AM

Eager to re-establish its relevance as the overseer of Chicago area mass transit, the Regional Transportation Authority put the blame Tuesday on Metra’s board for mismanaging the Alex Clifford affair.

And how do you suppose the RTA proposes we keep something like this from happening again?

By giving the RTA more power, of course.

While I can’t dismiss that proposed antidote out of hand, it does seem a little convenient, coming amidst renewed calls from some corners to eliminate the RTA altogether.

Basically, the RTA is saying that if we expect the agency to provide real oversight over Metra, Pace and CTA, then we have to give them the tools to do the job.

On the surface, that certainly seems reasonable, although the better solution may still be to blow up the current mass transit governance structure altogether and devise a new one. A review panel recently appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn will need to explore that possibility.

Under criticism for having failed to keep Metra in check on its separation agreement with Clifford, preliminary audit results released Tuesday by the RTA take pains to point out the limitations on its authority to prevent what happened.

For instance, the RTA says it should be granted the power to approve all service board severance agreements, settlements and bonuses in excess of $50,000 — before they are executed. Likewise, it wants to see any non-employment related litigation expenses or settlements exceeding $1,000,000 at least 48 hours in advance.

As things now stand, the RTA’s only power to enforce its oversight responsibility is to disapprove a transit agency’s budget and withhold funding for the year, a not particularly practical approach given the potential effect on commuters.

Instead, the RTA wants line-item veto power over each agency’s budget, which would allow it to amend specific line items. It proposes to enforce such provisions by issuing fines to executives of the individual service boards or suspending a service board’s powers until it complies.

Having been in Springfield for the birth of Metra and Pace with the reconfiguring of the RTA, I’m fully aware that there’s a real juggling act that goes into how you divide up the power and still efficiently manage two passenger railroads and two bus systems. I’m not sure whether state lawmakers will really want to bestow a lot of power in a centralized agency, having tried once to get away from an all-powerful RTA.

In yet another wrinkle, the RTA says the governor should be allowed to remove any service board member if a majority of the RTA board recommends doing so.

It also wants subpoena power over the service boards when it is conducting an audit. In the Metra situation, the RTA said it was forced to rely on whatever materials the agency produced voluntarily.

Apparently, somebody on the Metra staff was only too happy to provide information about the one major new factual disclosure in the RTA audit: the existence of an insurance policy that could have covered the suburban rail agency against a lawsuit such as the one Clifford threatened.

That discovery casts the decision to pay Clifford the exorbitant exit sum in an even more unfavorable light, although it is unclear whether everyone involved in negotiating his separation agreement was aware of the possibility of using the insurance policy. At the time, Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran and other members were conducting an end run around the agency’s staff to carry out Clifford’s removal.

RTA Chairman John Gates J. says Metra should review that insurance policy to see if it might “still be financially prudent” to cancel Clifford’s severance agreement.

Sounds like wishful thinking at this point to me, but maybe the insurance company can be persuaded to at least help defray the public’s outlay to Clifford. Metra put his maximum payout at $718,000, but RTA officials now tell Sun-Times Transportation Reporter Rosalind Rossi it was actually $871,000.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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