IL: Metra Board Poised to Name New Chairman

Feb. 09--Metra's board of directors is poised to select a new chairman Tuesday, filling the post that was vacated after the controversy that rocked the agency last summer and purged its leadership.

The new chairman could be the first one in Metra's 30-year history to be selected by the board members themselves with little apparent influence exerted by the political powers who appoint the directors, officials say.

"I know of no pressure from any of the authorities on any directors," acting Chairman Jack Partelow said.

"They're going to make the pick (themselves), and that's good thing," he said. "I know it's not been that way in the past. ... I think they'll come up with a proper choice."

The three candidates are John Plante, a former CTA executive from Wilmette; Brian Reaves, village president of Lemont; and Martin Oberman, former independent alderman from Chicago. Each will make his case during a closed session of the board.

In interviews with the Tribune, all three said they would work with whoever is the consensus choice.

Metra's previous chairman, Brad O'Halloran, resigned in August after an outcry over the exit of Alex Clifford as CEO of the nation's second-busiest commuter rail agency. Prompted by what was described as a power struggle between Clifford and O'Halloran, Clifford left with a severance package worth as much as $871,000, more than three times his annual salary.

The incident also produced allegations of political patronage and interference with contracts at the agency.

Six Metra board members resigned or were removed as a result of the Clifford blowup and were replaced. Plante, Reaves and Oberman are among the new members.

Even though Metra's board members elect the chairman, the political powers who appoint them have traditionally decided who would get the post. It took more than a year of behind-the-scenes negotiations for the county chairmen from the six-county region and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to agree on O'Halloran in October 2012.

As part of that agreement, the officials negotiated a policy that requires the chairmanship to be rotated every four years between a board member from Cook County, including Chicago, and a member from one of the five other counties.

By law, a supermajority of eight votes of the 11-member board is needed to select a chairman. Board members will meet in closed session Tuesday to discuss the issue. Members said they expect to reach a consensus with a unanimous public vote.

Oberman's selection would be noteworthy because Metra's board traditionally has been chaired by suburban Republicans.

Oberman and the others say politics isn't a factor in their reasons for seeking the chairmanship and that the goal is to bring the best leadership possible to Metra.

"I think I have something to contribute to the agency," Oberman said, pointing to his public service as an alderman on the Chicago City Council from 1975 to 1987 and as an attorney.

Metra's board members are committed to preventing the chairmanship from becoming a "fiefdom," Oberman said.

Plante was appointed by Cook County commissioners representing the north and west suburbs. He is an attorney and retired CTA safety and security official who spent 35 years at that agency.

"I think what this organization needs is someone who understands transportation and some of the nuances of the railroad (industry) and will go forward from there," Plante said.

Reaves, appointed by the south and southwest Cook County commissioners, is village president of Lemont. He is president and CEO of a material handling and storage company.

Reaves said he would emphasize working with state and U.S. legislators to get more funding, and cooperating with the other transit agencies.

"Board members need to have more interaction" with those agencies, Reaves said. "We don't need to be adversarial; we need to be partners."

rwronski@tribune.com

Twitter @richwronski

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