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Metra CEO quits, gets $442,237 in buyout

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Updated: July 23, 2013 6:12AM



Beleaguered Metra CEO Alex Clifford resigned Friday, agreeing to take a $442,237 buyout of the eight months left on his contract — an amount Metra’s chairman called “generous” and others called “excessive.’’

The only board member to vote directly against accepting the severance package said Clifford’s departure ends a months-long tug of war between Clifford and Metra Chairman Brad O’Halloran over “who’s in charge.’’

With Metra now temporarily headed by two executive staff members, “Authority now rests with the chairman,’’ said Board member and Clifford-supporter Jack Schaffer of Crystal Lake. “He’s calling the shots.

“And that may be what the board wants. I happen to like the strong transit professional running the place and the board doing oversight.’’

In announcing Clifford’s resignation, O’Halloran said it followed “differences of opinion” on “how Metra moves forward” and “who we need leading this organization.’’ He called the $442,237 separation agreement “generous” but a reflection of “the recognition that Mr. Clifford uprooted his family to take this position during a difficult time for this agency.’’

“At the same time, the board believes it is critical that Metra moves in a new direction, one built on finding a new consensus in Springfield and Washington to develop new resources to service our passengers,’’ said O’Halloran, who couldn’t be reached for comment about an alleged power struggle.

Clifford, a former executive with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was hired in February 2011 for three years at an annual salary of $252,000 to clean up Metra after the stunning suicide of its former executive director.

Former Metra chief Phil Pagano stepped in front of a Metra train in May 2010 after an investigation indicated he had taken $475,000 in unapproved vacation pay.

O’Halloran said Clifford also could receive up to $307,390 additionally if he did not obtain a higher-paying job in 12 months after his contract is up.

However, according to the severance agreement itself, Clifford will be paid until the end of his term in February 2014, and then will receive an additional nearly $138,000 for the six months after his contract expires. Then, for an additional 12 months, he is eligible to receive the difference between the salary of whatever new job he gets and his old Metra job if his new job pays less.

Clifford also will receive reasonable moving fees and attorneys fees, Halloran said. The separation agreement puts those amounts at $78,000 and $75,000, respectively. Metra public relations staff would not answer questions about the separation agreement.

Friday’s action followed a special closed-door session, one of several board members have had in recent months as they wrangled over, among other things, how to evaluate Clifford in advance of the February 2014 expiration of his contract.

Steve Schlickman, executive director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the severance package “looked excessive,” especially given that Clifford had only eight months left on his contract.

“I have never heard of such an expensive severance package for a transit executive in Chicago,’’ Schlickman said. “To give someone almost half a million dollar severance for not working for eight months is obviously excessive, and Metra needs to explain it as best they can as to why it was needed.’’

Schlickman said Clifford brought a new frankness about Metra’s financial situation to the agency, and instituted fare hikes that should have been implemented more gradually by his predecessors. Finally, the rail system was able to stop using capital funds to cover operating expenses.

Under Clifford’s tenure, the suburban rail system instituted the biggest fare hike in the agency’s history, followed by a jump in the cost of its popular 10-ride ticket. In January, Metra doled out $1.4 million in raises and benefits to 300 non-union employees who it said were making “below-market-average” wages.



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