Feb. 11--Martin Oberman, a former Chicago alderman, was picked today to chair Metra's board of directors, bringing a city voice to a post often held by suburbanites.
Oberman said he hopes to guide Metra past the difficulties that erupted after the forced resignation of the agency's CEO in 2013 -- which lingered into the new year as the rail line struggled to run trains on time during the bitterly cold weather.
On Monday, state lawmakers scolded Metra's Executive Director Don Orseno for the reduced service and lengthy delays during January's polar vortex.
Oberman, 68, said he hopes to continue professionalizing top levels of an agency long influenced by political brokers.
"Two-and-a-half years from now, I would hope that Metra would be understood to be a corporation in which you don't play political games with it anymore," Oberman said. "We are beyond that and we are insulated from that because we are doing the job as we should."
Oberman was elected unanimously by Metra's 11 board members Tuesday after more than two hours in closed session. Two other directors, Lemont Village President Brian Reaves and former CTA executive John Plante, had also expressed interest in the job.
All three were appointed after the board approved a severance package for CEO Alex Clifford last year worth as much as $871,000, more than three times his annual salary.
The board Oberman inherits is still very much shaped by that event and its fallout, which included allegations of political patronage and contract interference. Six board members left or were removed in the months that followed, including Chairman Brad O'Halloran, who resigned in August. The decision to remove Clifford had been described as a power struggle between him and O'Halloran.
Though Oberman has long been a fixture in local politics, the former 43rd Ward alderman is in some ways an unconventional pick to lead Metra's board. The progressive politician from Chicago will head a panel often chaired by suburban Republicans.
"I think he has the independence and integrity to represent the entire six-county area," said Jack Schaffer, a Republican from McHenry County. "I am very proud and comfortable voting for a Chicago liberal Democrat who I believe will do a good job as chairman of Metra."
Oberman's current term on the board runs through June 30, 2016. If reappointed, he will remain chairman through Nov. 1 of that year, Metra spokesman Michael Gillis said. In November 2016, Metra's chairmanship will rotate from Cook County to the collar counties.
Oberman, who was appointed to the board by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in September, also served on the mayor's advisory panel that considered -- and ultimately decided against -- creating a public-private partnership to run Midway Airport.
An independent alderman from 1975 to 1987, Oberman also worked in Mayor Harold Washington's administration.
As Oberman emerged as a likely candidate for the top post this week, Emanuel praised his appointee, saying Oberman was "committed to public service, committed to the task ahead of him and bringing a vision of how to modernize something that will help serve the overall regional economy, which Chicago is the center of."
Oberman's selection for the board's top post is a departure from previous decisions, in which political interests were often foremost. In the days before the meeting, acting Chairman Jack Partelow said he wasn't aware of any pressure on the board's directors from appointing authorities.
After the meeting, Schaffer said that although a few politicians might have tried to put in a word, the process was conducted more fairly than in the past.
"Last time, it came from on high," he said. "This time, we asked questions."
Oberman said that philosophy -- that running the agency well takes precedence over political favors -- is a welcome change.
"What I would like to see is that Metra function as a professionally run railroad corporation," he said, "not as some kind of political entity or a place with political interference."
Tribune reporter John Byrne contributed.
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