IL: Metra's Board Faces Decision on New Executive Director

Jan. 30--Seven months after the ouster of Metra's CEO in a controversy that rocked the agency's top leadership and resonated all the way to Springfield, Metra's board is poised to select a new chief executive.

Board members are scheduled to interview four candidates Friday and could make a decision on filling the post, which currently pays $250,000 a year.

At stake is command of the nation's second-largest commuter rail agency, which moves300,000 passengers and 700 trains a day. A prominent position by rail industry standards, the job is also a hornet's nest of logistic, administrative and political challenges, experts say.

The leading candidate, according to some board members, is Don Orseno, who has been interim executive director since August. The identities of the three other candidates haven't been made public.

Acting Chairman Jack Partelow, of Naperville, who indicated his preference for a "strong railroad man" for the post, said Orseno "has a lot going for him. ... He's a good man, a solid guy."

State law requires the executive director to be an "individual of proven transportation and management skills." To screen candidates, Metra hired Slavin Management Consultants of Norcross, Ga.

Orseno has 40 years of railroad experience, including 30 at Metra. During his career, Orseno has done everything from collecting tickets to running locomotives.

Others wonder, however, if an agency as complex as Metra needs someone with a broader background in administration and a wider perspective. The agency has 2,700 employees, or about 4,400 if BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad contract crews are counted.

Metra needs an executive director who can manage the agency and work with the board as an effective team, said Steve Schlickman, director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"Given their operational difficulties during the last couple of weeks, it's paramount that Metra has an executive director who has sound railroad experience," Schlickman said.

"At the same time, given the situation that happened with (former CEO) Alex Clifford, they need someone who has a pretty good knowledge of the political environment that Metra operates in," he said.

Since 1990, Metra has had only two executive directors: Phil Pagano, who ran the agency for 20 years -- like a fiefdom, critics say -- and ended up committing suicide in 2010 in disgrace after a vacation-pay scandal, and Clifford, who left the agency last June with a severance deal worth as much as $871,000.

An ex-Marine armed with an MBA, Clifford was lured from California, where he was involved with Los Angeles County's development of high-speed rail. He also served for eight years on the board of LA's Metrolink.

Metra's board is made up of 11 directors appointed by county leaders from the six-county area and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. State law requires a "supermajority," or eight of the 11, to hire a new chief. Several board members reached Wednesday by the Tribune said politics won't play a role in the selection.

Clifford's downfall came after clashing with then-Chairman Brad O'Halloran. Among other allegations, Clifford charged that O'Halloran pressured him to make personnel moves based on patronage, which O'Halloran denied.

Whether Orseno or another new executive director can successfully maneuver around the political minefields is a question facing Metra's board.

John Zediker, who represents DuPage County on Metra's board, said all four candidates in the running are "transit-oriented."

"I don't know if having an MBA or an advanced degree is an end-all or be-all," Zediker said. "I do believe it's going to be important for whoever it is have a positive relationship with legislators."

Jack Schaffer, who represents McHenry County, has expressed support for Orseno.

"Unless Superman walks through the door in full uniform, I don't see how much better we can do than that," Schaffer said.

rwronski@tribune.com Twitter @richwronski

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