Fitzgerald questions transit agencies’ training on taking politics out of hiring
BY ROSALIND ROSSI Transportation Reporter September 25, 2013 9:15PM
09/25/2013 Chicago Former United States Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Taskforce member, speaks to leaders of the CTA, RTA, Metra, and Pace transit systems that serve the Chicagoland area during a public hearing at the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago on Wednesday, September 25, 2013. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 28, 2013 7:13AM
Corruption-busting former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald Wednesday voiced concern that the region’s four transit agencies seem to have dropped the ball on adequately training staff on how to remove politics from hiring.
Fitzgerald’s comments came during the second meeting of a transit task force formed in the wake of allegations by ex-Metra CEO Alex Clifford that two Metra Board members conspired to dump him because he would not “play ball” on patronage requests — two of them supposedly originating with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago).
Fitzgerald said his observations were based on the written responses of all four transit agencies to 25 detailed questions he had posed involving ethics issues.
The answers of the Regional Transportation Authority and the three agencies it oversees — Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority and Pace — indicate that the agencies provide “lots of training” on avoiding discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, national origin or a disability, Fitzgerald said.
Some agencies reported training about gift-giving, ethics and avoiding nepotism, he said.
But, Fitzgerald said, he didn’t see a lot of training based on “removing politics from hiring.’’
“There’s not a lot of training on whether people can be hired based on political affiliation,’’ Fitzgerald said during the meeting of Gov. Pat Quinn’s Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force. “I have concerns about that.”
During the first requested appearance of all four transit agencies before the task force, Fitzgerald questioned whether there should be a “firewall” between elected officials and the hiring process.
In an exchange with RTA executive director Joseph Costello, Fitzgerald asked whether the RTA keeps any record of politicians who call the RTA to say they’d like someone hired.
Costello said no such record is kept because all such callers are referred to the agency’s website for directions on how to apply for jobs.
During questioning by task force member Ashish Sen, leaders of the RTA and Pace conceded their agencies have doled out severances to employees who were not under contract.
Pace executive director Thomas Ross said Pace has awarded “maybe one week’s pay for every year of service” to a departing employee, but such deals were “nothing of the magnitude” of the up to $871,000, 26-month separation agreement given Clifford. Clifford’s deal, and the circumstances surrounding it, spawned investigations by two inspectors general and the formation of Quinn’s task force.
Also Wednesday, RTA Chairman John Gates Jr. charged that the RTA was being “required to provide oversight without the tools.’’ RTA officials have said they did not know about Clifford’s buyout deal until after it occurred, and under current rules, Metra was not required to run hiring or separation decisions past the RTA.
Gates recommended that the RTA be given more power over Metra, the CTA and Pace or, as an alternative, all four agencies should be consolidated into one that would set policy and revenue for the region. Such an agency could be divided into a light rail, heavy rail and bus division, he said.
The concept didn’t sit well with Ross, executive director of Pace, which provides suburban bus service. Ross said Pace has bus contracts with 90 different communities, and “they expect to control how the service looks if they are paying for it.’’ For example, he said, changes are currently being made in Lake County based on its requests.
“You get everything in one location in some ivory tower, and all you’re going to get is criticism,” Ross said.
Under an executive order signed in August by Quinn, the task force has been asked to consider streamlining or restructuring the four agencies, to address patronage and ethics issues raised by the Clifford case, and to create a blueprint for a “world class” transit system. Its initial recommendation are due in mid-October.