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Taxpayers deserve ‘golden parachute’

Former MetrCEO Alex Clifford claims meomo thIllinois Speaker House Michael Madigan used influence obtapay hike for political ally. |

Former Metra CEO Alex Clifford claims in a meomo that Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan used influence to obtain a pay hike for a political ally. | Sun-Times File Photo.

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Updated: August 2, 2013 6:36AM

‘Golden parachutes” may ensure soft, comfortable landings for high-level officials as they float down from lofty government jobs, but those excessive severance packages drop like lead balloons on the backs of taxpayers who get crushed by the cost.

Big bye-bye bonuses are especially offensive when the beneficiaries already have been generously compensated and sufficiently coddled in their executive positions.

The latest extravaganza, replete with a “gag order” so the participants can’t discuss it publicly, is the Metra board’s departure deal with CEO Alex Clifford, which could end up costing taxpayers and riders more than $750,000.

That puts Clifford in the top tier of the “Golden Parachute Hall of Shame,” next to Wayne Watson, who walked away from an arguably unsuccessful stewardship of the City Colleges of Chicago with nearly $800,000 in accumulated perks, benefits and wet kisses.

How many times do we have to remind these people this isn’t the private sector, where strong profits and higher share prices may entitle an outgoing CEO to a sizeable severance package from a grateful board of directors?

This is government, where we, the taxpayers, foot the bill for the programs and services we want and need.

We’re willing to compensate public officials fairly for the jobs they do on our behalf, and that includes the retirement benefits they’ve earned, but not lavish severance agreements.

Here are a few of the other egregious exits the Better Government Association has uncovered in recent years, and what followed our disclosures:

◆ Robert Healy, who ran the Lyons Township School Treasurer’s office, gave himself a $500,000 sendoff by cashing in supposedly unused sick, vacation and personal days. That deal is now under investigation.

◆ Former Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan got a $50,000 check from CPS for unused sick days when he decamped to Washington D.C. as President Obama’s federal education czar. The Board of Ed canceled the sick day payout policy last year, but Arne hasn’t returned the money.

◆ Former Oak Brook police chief Thomas Sheahan profited from a quietly crafted state law that boosted his pension by $32,000 a year. Oak Brook is asking state lawmakers to undo the deal.

◆ And former Lansing police commander Jerry Zeldenrust got a $26,000 raise on his last day on the job, which boosted his annual pension by $19,000.

That was part of Lansing’s plan to save money short term by “sweetening” the pensions of highly paid veteran cops and firemen so they’d retire and be replaced by low-salary rookies. But that created a multimillion-dollar long-term pension liability, so Lansing canceled the program.

These retirement ripoffs are probably just the tip of the iceberg — scams we discovered based on tips and leads.

Imagine how many more of our tax dollars have been dispensed as farewell gifts to public officials without our knowledge because no one was watching or blowing the whistle.

At least the financial details of Alex Clifford’s “resignation” deal have been made public, if not the machinations, and its audacity is sparking investigations, along with outrage, which is good.

But let’s take it a step further by considering a state law that prohibits or at least “caps” expensive “golden parachutes” for departing public officials.

Because if anyone deserves a soft, comfortable landing it’s us — the taxpayers.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at or 312-386-9097

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