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Metra names ‘railroad man’ as interim CEO

A head-hunting firm has narrowed field four candidates including interim MetrCEO DOrseno (pictured); former top Chicago Transit Authority executive; an

A head-hunting firm has narrowed the field to four candidates, including interim Metra CEO Don Orseno (pictured); a former top Chicago Transit Authority executive; and an out-of-towner. | Alex Wroblewski~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 27, 2013 8:54PM



Metra operations chief Don Orseno, a lifelong “railroad man,’’ Tuesday was unanimously named interim Metra CEO by a shrunken Metra board trying to shake off the controversy surrounding the departure of its last CEO.

Orseno was selected over administration chief Alex Wiggins based on his experience of 40 years in the railroad industry, said acting Metra Chair Jack Partelow.

“We run a railroad and Don is a railroad man,’’ Partelow said.

In his first public comments as interim CEO, Orseno referred to the one-two punch of controversies that has wracked Metra — first the May 2010 suicide of former executive director Phil Pagano, then the uproar that faced the board’s $871,000 separation deal with ex-Metra CEO Alex Clifford.

“We’ve had some serious challenges in the last 36 months,’’ Orseno said.

“We have always stepped up to the challenge. Though sometimes we got painted with a bad brush, they [Metra employees] shook it off.’’

Asked how Metra could avoid a “bad brush” in the future, Orseno said, “If you do the right things for the right reason, things will take care of themselves.’’

Acting in special session, the reduced Metra Board of six members voted unanimously to elevate Orseno to the top spot. No longer will the agency be headed by what one board member once called “a two-headed monster” of two deputy executive directors — Orseno and Wiggins — with the chairman of the board acting as tiebreaker if needed.

The two-pronged leadership was criticized by Metra’s financial overseer, the RTA, during a recent audit of the suburban railroad agency. The audit followed rising criticism of the Metra Board’s decision to award Clifford a 26-month, up-to-$871,000 buyout in exchange for exiting his contract eight months early.

Minutes after the board approved the June 21 separation agreement with Clifford, then-Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran led the board in a decision to appoint Orseno and Wiggins co-executive directors, with O’Halloran set up to resolve any disputes. O’Halloran has since resigned amid rising outcry over the Clifford mess.

Although eight votes are needed to approve a permanent CEO, only four are needed for an interim CEO, Metra officials said.

Five board members resigned amid the tumult that greeted a Clifford separation agreement that the RTA has since criticized as unusually expensive and lengthy, and whose basis was poorly documented.

Partelow said he expected appointing authorities to add more members by the end of the month and expand the board from six to eight. Eventually, Partelow said, “I think we’ll get up to 11’’ — a normal complement.

The new configuration means Wiggins, who once headed the agency with Orseno, will now report to Orseno. Wiggins sat silently next to Orseno at a long polished-wood table as board members cast their votes in front of the two men Tuesday.

In one of a series of revelations made public after his departure, Clifford had contended that O’Halloran and another board member orchestrated his ouster in a scheme to replace him with Wiggins.

However, Orseno pushed a message of unity Tuesday, saying his first challenge as interim CEO will be “getting everyone together, nurturing a team spirit and making Metra a better place.’’



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