If Metra’s CEO leaves, agency could take a new course

To remain, Clifford needs to withstand job review
May 07, 2013|By Richard Wronski, Chicago Tribune reporter

Three years after Metra was rocked by the suicide of its longtime executive director, the commuter rail agency could again be chugging toward an uncharted destination.

Alex Clifford, the CEO who was recruited from Los Angeles in 2011 to succeed the disgraced Phil Pagano and repair the railroad he left behind, may soon find his days at Metra numbered.

Changes on Metra’s politically appointed board of directors have put Clifford in the awkward position of no longer working for the bosses who hired him. Metra’s recently named chairman, Brad O’Halloran, has called for an unprecedented review of Clifford’s job performance. That closed-door evaluation could be finished in the next two weeks.

Although his contract doesn’t expire until February, Clifford could take an early exit if he doesn’t get support from eight of Metra’s 11 directors.

His departure would raise questions about whether Metra will remain on the path to reform that has been followed over the last two years in the wake of a scandal involving Pagano.

“No one is perfect, but he’s performed well,” said former board member Jim LaBelle. “(Clifford) came in during a tough time and did what we expected him to do — clean things up and be professional and bring in a professional group (of administrators). There’s all kinds of progress that’s been made in the last couple years.”

Clifford’s tenure at Metra hasn’t been without missteps, and he had no firsthand experience running a railroad before taking over the nation’s second-busiest commuter rail agency.

He recommended the biggest-ever increase in fares — unanimously approved by Metra’s board — and has drawn fire for hiring a high-priced railroad consultant and for not being deferential enough to local politicians.

In deciding Clifford’s fate, Metra’s board members will have to weigh his shortcomings against a list of his reforms and customer service improvements.

Clifford contends he has followed the board’s orders by instituting much-needed policy changes, overhauling management and improving service.

“The board felt (I) could come into a crisis situation and help them get this agency turned around,” Clifford said in a recent interview. “They needed somebody to come in and get the agency back on track. They put their trust in me and … if you look at my record over the last two years, I’ve stabilized the agency.”

There’s no doubt Metra is a different agency in 2013 that it was during Pagano’s 20-year reign.

Pagano, 60, stepped in front of a Metra train on May 7, 2010, near his Crystal Lake home, just as Metra’s board was poised to fire him.

After that event, LaBelle said, “All hell broke loose,” and continued for the next year until Clifford was hired.

An independent investigation determined Pagano had schemed to take nearly half a million dollars in unapproved vacation pay and forged memos to cover it up.

The investigation found that Pagano had amassed unchallenged power at the agency, which suffered from “a troubling lack of oversight and accountability which needs to be remedied.”

In the past two years, Metra’s board has taken several steps to assert oversight and keep the power of the executive director in check. These moves include directly approving all expenditures over $100,000 and signing off on all new hires making at least $75,000 a year.

Under former Chairwoman Carole Doris, Metra launched a new policy of transparency and accountability that Clifford has expanded.

Under Pagano, Metra’s board meetings were largely perfunctory sessions, with members taking a back seat to the executive director. Public discussion was minimal, and few directors questioned, much less challenged, Pagano’s decisions.

In 2013, by contrast, Metra meetings have turned into marathon sessions during which directors question even the smallest procurement contracts. Top administrators give lengthy updates on topics like contracts to disadvantaged business enterprises and ridership.

Under Clifford, Metra has begun posting board meeting agendas online along with detailed memos and presentations.

Clifford takes credit for bringing in a new management team. Most of Pagano’s top assistants have left.

One longtime employee, who does not report directly to Clifford, said it’s “been a new day” at Metra.

“It’s a different environment,” said the employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There’s definitely (more) accountability. There’s a work ethic. … Carole Doris hired a guy to come in and clean up, and as near as I can tell, he’s cleaning up (the agency).”

Although fares have increased significantly during his tenure, Clifford argues those hikes were “the responsible thing to do” and that Metra is now providing better service for its 300,000 daily customers with more accurate schedules and an effort to upgrade amenities.

Metra’s website and ticketing is more customer-friendly, he contends, and steps are being taken toward adding Wi-Fi and ending paper tickets.

When things go wrong — such as the long delays on the BNSF Line after a fatal accident in March — Clifford has issued apologies to customers.

Prompted by a 2011 Tribune analysis of Metra’s on-time performance, Clifford scrapped so-called construction allowances, a long-standing practice that artificially inflated the numbers. Under those allowances, many non-peak-hour trains that were delayed for long periods due to track repairs were not classified as late.

Despite the change in methodology, Metra has kept the overall on-time numbers above 95 percent. Metra now posts its performance data online.

Metra has also ended the practice of diverting money intended for equipment and infrastructure to day-to-day operations.

Still, Clifford has attracted his share of criticism.

Some questioned why he needed to hire a veteran railroad consultant — at a fee equivalent to nearly twice Clifford’s annual salary of $252,500 — to help reorganize the agency.

Clifford’s primary transportation experience came not from running a railroad but from managing of one of the bus service sectors at Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Although Clifford says he has reached out to legislators and officials who appoint Metra’s board members, Clifford has not ingratiated himself with some local political leaders.

At an April hearing of the House Mass Transit Committee in Chicago, Clifford engaged in a heated exchange with state Rep. Al Riley, D-Olympia Fields. Riley had accused Metra of not working with the CTA to plan alternative service during the Red Line reconstruction project and not participating with the CTA in the upcoming Ventra fare card system, but Clifford sharply disputed those charges.

Last year, Metra also got caught up in a politically troublesome dispute with three South Side U.S. congressmen led by Bobby Rush over a $93 million construction contract for a railroad overpass known as the Englewood Flyover. The congressmen threatened to block the project, saying it wouldn’t benefit the economically depressed Englewood neighborhood.

Clifford and his administrators insisted state and federal rules were followed to the letter in awarding the contract. But the dispute put Metra’s then-acting chairman Larry Huggins, himself a South Side contractor, on the spot.

In recent weeks, Huggins has repeatedly criticized a consultant’s study initiated by Clifford that sought to make Metra employees’ pay scale more equitable in comparison with other transportation agencies. Huggins contends the salary adjustments are unfair to many longtime Metra employees.

Steve Schlickman, former executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority and now head of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, gives Clifford high marks.

“I think he’s moved Metra in the right direction, and I hope he gets a chance to finish his job,” Schlickman said.

Metra customers, of course, have their own view of the agency. Lalith Jacob, 36, said he has noticed some positive changes in recent years, especially communication with passengers.

“The notifications and announcements at the suburban stations when a train is on-time — or running late — have definitely been helpful,” said Jacob, of Glendale Heights.

Jacob also appreciates email notifications sent to his iPhone when trains run late. Still, he’s eager to get Wi-Fi on his train.

“My ride is 45 minutes — I could get through a lot of emails and catching up on work if there was Wi-Fi available,” Jacob said. “I’m confused why Metra can’t get it done. … We’re definitely behind there.”

Tribune reporters Bridget Doyle and Jon Hilkevitch contributed.

rwronski@tribune.com  twitter @richwronski

News article:  http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-05-07/news/ct-met-metra-since-pagano-20130507_1_alex-clifford-metra-train-phil-pagano