IL: Metra Board Adds Reform to Deter Improper Influence in Hiring

The Metra Board of Directors April 11 unanimously passed a reform measure aimed at increasing transparency in the hiring process and reinforcing a ban on political influence by requiring all employment-related communications to be entered into a log that is available to the public.

“We want the message to be loud and clear that political considerations in all employment-related matters are not and will not be tolerated,” said Metra Chairman Martin Oberman. “Publicizing any job-related communications should serve as a deterrent to any attempt at improper influence. This reform reinforces our existing ban on political hiring and demonstrates our commitment to transparency and reform.”

One of the recommendations of the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force was that agencies should be required to disclose communications between elected officials or their representatives regarding employment matters via a publicly available and regularly updated database.

The new ordinance defines “employment related communication” as communications by any medium, directly or indirectly, recommending or suggesting the hiring, firing, transfer, promotion, demotion, salary increase, job benefit, or discipline of any individual with respect to employment by Metra. Any employee or board member who receives such communication from anyone who is not a Metra employee or board member will now be required to enter details about it into a log maintained by Metra’s Human Resources Department.

The log will include the date and time of the communication, the identity of the person making the communication, the identity of the person who is the subject of the communication, and a summary of the substance of the communication. The log will be subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Any person who violates any part of the ordinance shall be subject to discipline up to and including termination.

The ordinance includes exceptions for communications from third parties who are providing references or recommendations that Metra requests in the ordinary course of reviewing applicants for employment. However, if the person providing such a reference or recommendation is a public official, then such communication must be logged and is subject to disclosure.

The ordinance also does not require logging communications relevant to any employee or applicant exercising existing rights, such as collective bargaining rights or a right to representation by legal counsel for alleged wrongdoing.

The new ordinance is just one of many steps that the Board of Directors has taken in recent months to build and sustain a successful transportation enterprise that is accountable to the public it serves. In another important change, adopted in December 2013, Metra’s Human Resources Department now requires both interviewers and managers to certify that political affiliations are absolutely no factor in employment decisions.

Other reforms include:

  • New Chief Audit Officer. We are in the process of interviewing and hiring for that position now. The new Chief Audit Officer will operate according to the strictest business and accounting standards, and will be directly accountable to all eleven Metra Board members and the CEO.
  • Metra has streamlined the recruiting and hiring process, and we are actively reaching out to veteran, minority and women’s organizations seeking qualified prospects to add to our employment pool.
  • New evaluation process for the executive director. The reform Board is currently reviewing a comprehensive evaluation process for the agency’s Executive Director that includes clear goals and objectives by which to measure progress and performance.
  • Legal work brought in-house. Since the middle of last year, the Metra Board has eliminated retention of an outside law firm that reports only to the Board. The Board has been transitioning legal work from outside firms back to the agency’s in-house lawyers to ensure consistency and control costs.
  • More comprehensive Board training. All new Board members now receive a comprehensive briefing packet and are required to attend personalized meetings to learn about and discuss governance and operational issues.
  • Renewed commitment to ethics. We have now created a comprehensive Ethics Manual for all employees and are in the process of doing so for the Board, in addition to the Ethics training mandated by state law.
  • Separation agreements. Metra’s reform Board has enacted an ordinance that now requires any separation agreement exceeding $100,000 to be reported immediately to the RTA.
  • Information to legislators. Metra is providing regular news and information updates to state legislators, and county commissioners in its service territory.
  • Reports to the news media. Rather than waiting for the news media to knock on our door, Chairman Oberman will periodically report on Metra’s reform agenda, progress and performance through in-person meetings with the news media.
  • Hillard Heintze report. Because of a concern with the operational effectiveness and efficiency of the Metra police operation, the previous Board retained the nationally respected security experts at Hillard Heintz to take a hard look at the Metra police department. As a result of their critical review, Metra is hiring a new police chief to completely and comprehensively reorganize the agency’s police department in a manner consistent with the Hillard Heintze recommendations.