Alex Clifford, hired to clean up Metra after the Phil Pagano scandal, resigned as CEO today after a protracted negotiation with the commuter rail agency's politically appointed board of directors.
Clifford agreed to accept a $442,237 buyout covering salary for the remainder of his contract, severance payment and other benefits, according to Metra chairman Brad O’Halloran.
Clifford also might be entitled to an additional payout of as much as $300,000 if he cannot find another job within 13 months, O’Halloran said.
O'Halloran said little about the buyout other than Metra needed to go in a "different direction."
“The board believes it’s critical that Metra move in a different direction, one built on finding a new consensus in Springfield and Washington (and) develop new resources to serve our taxpayers and our communities,” O’Halloran said, reading from a statement before the board vote approving the separation agreement.
“While we want every dollar possible to go directly to serving our passengers, this payment is a small price to pay for future goals of garnering more state and federal investment in Metra and taking Metra in a different direction,” O’Halloran said.
The vote to approve the separation agreement was 9-1, with Larry Huggins of Chicago voting “present.” Board member Jack Schaffer, of McHenry, a strong supporter of Clifford, responded, “Hell no,” during the roll call.
O’Halloran, who called for a review of Clifford’s tenure at the agency soon after being named chairman several months ago, refused to answer questions after the meeting.
Board members Jack Partelow of Will County and Arlene Mulder of Arlington Heights had little to say.
When asked to explain what “direction” Metra should be going in, Partelow responded: “Apparently Clifford thought it was going the wrong way. He resigned.”
Schaffer said his vote was an “emphatic no” to Clifford leaving Metra.
“I voted no because I really didn’t want to see Alex Clifford leave,” Schaffer said. “I think he’s done a great job and I really believe the concept of having a transit professional (running Metra) and we need to keep it out of politics.”
Friday’s action followed a special closed-door meeting of Metra's board, one of several it has held in recent months.
Clifford attended the beginning of the Metra board but left after the agreement was discussed during the closed session. He apparently walked out of Metra headquarters immediately and was not available for comment.
Clifford’s three-year contract was set to expire in February 2014. He needed the support of a “supermajority,” or eight of the board’s 11 members, to have his contract renewed.
Clifford, a native of the Los Angeles area, had been hired to put the commuter rail agency back on track following the 2010 suicide of Pagano, its disgraced executive director.
Pagano, 60, stepped in front of a Metra train near his Crystal Lake home on May 7, 2010, after an investigation revealed he had taken $475,000 in unapproved vacation pay and forged memos to cover it up.
Clifford took over in February 2011 under a three-year contract that paid him $252,500 annually. A Marine Corps veteran, he came from LA's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, where he served as general manager of one of the bus service sectors.
The change at the top will affect Metra's 300,000 daily riders, who have seen hefty fare increases in the last two years. Under Clifford, there have been reforms and customer friendly upgrades as the agency finally rolled into the 21st century, transportation experts say.
Earlier this year, Clifford presented the board with a long list of accomplishments, taking credit for financial savings, administrative achievements and customer service enhancements. The agency also has ended the practice of diverting money intended for equipment and infrastructure to day-to-day-operations, Clifford pointed out.
Metra has exceeded its 95 percent on-time performance goal, even after ending a practice that inflated the numbers, Clifford said.
During an April interview with the Tribune, Clifford said he had rejected pressure to hire employees based on patronage.
“I've said 'no' more than one time,” he said, adding that patronage “is not going to happen under my watch. It hasn't happened once, and it won't happen.”