THE BLOG

What Metra and Transit Agency Improvements Will We Achieve?

08/20/2013 04:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013

With news of another group looking at fixing our transit oversight in Illinois, we wonder what will be the legacy of the Metra Memogate? What will we have accomplished?

First, It's probably helpful to provide another Metra tally:

We've now had five of the 11 Metra board members resign, the latest being Stanley Rakestraw, who was appointed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. He was supposed to represent the suburbs, but the Chicago Tribune uncovered that he's been living in the Loop for the past two years since his former south suburban Flossmoor home burned down.

So, five Metra board members and the executive director, Alex Clifford, with his $718,000 severance package, are gone. Since the scandal erupted in late June, two Regional Transit Authority board members also have quit along with a Chicago Transit Authority board member. We also still have an executive inspector general and a legislative inspector general probing the mess.

But what now? How do we ensure an improvement and an end to patronage and insider dealing at our transit agencies?

In recent weeks, both Democratic governor candidate Bill Daley and GOP governor candidate Bill Brady have called for transit reforms. Daley advocates a reconfiguration of the Regional Transportation Authority which oversees the finances of Metra, the CTA and the suburban bus agency, Pace.

Brady called for replacing what's left of the current Metra board, limiting the chair to a two-year term and providing greater scrutiny of the appointment process that has, essentially, a variety of Chicago and collar county chief executives picking appointees. The Bloomington Republican also suggested requiring immediate disclosure of requests made to transit board members and employees by outsiders.

And then late last week, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn jumped into the mix with a 15-member, blue-ribbon panel that is expected to issue initial recommendations by the October veto session and more by January.

Quinn's panel includes corruption-buster, former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, so that's a cause for some hope. He also appointed several others who have extensive transit experience.

We still need to know what the remaining board members knew and when they knew it. It remains, it seems to us, inexcusable that they went along with an obscene $718,000 severance package and spent weeks trying to keep it from all of us who help fund Metra.

Brady has some ideas worth exploring, while Daley's idea to essentially abolish the RTA, putting more power into the governor's hands seems to be a ripe set up for more patronage appointments that could upset the current attempt at geographic balance on the board.

We need more transparency and openness at Metra and the other agencies, generally, and, specifically, about the process of who gets appointed to the board.

There ought to be a law calling for immediate and complete disclosure any time any politician contacts a transit agency employee, particularly top management. As much as is reasonably possible while protecting individual privacy rights, the results of all investigations ought to be disclosed to the public.

This episode ought to have demonstrated that we ought to ban government double dipping once and for all. Some of the Metra and CTA appointees, or potential appointees, have been tripped up by two government paychecks. Several lawmakers also hold other government jobs.

This can only lead to taxpayers wondering where someone's work is truly focused. No more double dipping might mean it's tougher to find people willing to do the work, but that's already the case after this Memogate debacle. If that also means raising some salaries or stipends for some jobs somewhat, so be it. Everyone should be allowed to make only one taxpayer-funded paycheck at a time, period.

If you serve on Metra's board or some other agency and you have private business interests, those businesses and connections must be disclosed. And if you're serving, no business or person with which you are connected should be allowed to hold a contract or make money from the agency on which you're serving, unless the contract was signed before you began your service.

No more patronage. No more pay to play. No more quid pro quo. No more hush money.

Lawmakers will have to vote to approve any changes to our transit agency structure. These ideas are a good start. Let's demand open and fair operations at our transit agencies. Metra's Memogate should move us all to action.

- See more at Reboot Illinois