CEO severance controversy puts Metra board in harsh spotlight

Four directors are appointed by the suburban members of the Cook County Board, on a geographic basis.

One director is appointed by the mayor of Chicago.

The chairman is chosen by a vote of at least eight board members.

Board members are paid $15,000 a year and the chairman receives $25,000.

Board members need not know anything about running a railroad, although one current member is an industry consultant.

Only five board members have ever held elective office, and only two do so currently.

George Ranney, president and CEO of the civic group Metropolis Strategies, played a key role in creating the RTA in the 1970s. At the time, the goal was to appoint members with "strong professional competence" to the new agency, he said.

The CTA had already been in existence for decades. Metra was not formally created until 1983, along with Pace.

Ranney said the goal was to "rise above politics and make the right decisions."

Today, electing the members of Metra's board and the other agencies would be "a travesty," he believes.

What's gone wrong, he argued, is their administration. "The real problem is, Metra's done a lousy job at assuring good leadership over the years," he said.

Ranney and Metropolis Strategies also believe that the RTA has failed to perform its oversight role. The group has campaigned for abolishing the agency and merging its functions with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, or CMAP.

Regarding Clifford, Ranney said: "It's just a terrible way to run an organization, to hire somebody and throw him out two years later. They made a mistake then and made a mistake now. The board has to take responsibility."

Unlike Chicago, other large cities' transit authorities have varying degrees of direct public accountability.

In San Francisco, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District is governed by an elected board of nine directors, each representing a specific geographic area.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, commonly referred to as Metro or MTA, has a 13-member board, most of whom are elected officials.

However, these officials are not elected directly to the MTA board itself. For example, five members are Los Angeles County supervisors and four others are council members from cities other than Los Angeles.

The board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees much of that region's public transportation, provides a different type of accountability.

The Port Authority board is appointed by the governors of each state, but the governors have veto power over the commissioners' actions.

Twitter @richwronski