Unlike his predecessor, who ran a Los Angeles bus company, Metra's new interim executive director is a veteran "railroad guy" who actually knows how to drive a train.
Donald Orseno broke into the railroad business collecting tickets, helping set up trains and checking doors on the Rock Island Railroad.
Named Tuesday to take over the nation's second-largest commuter rail agency, and one recently mired in controversy, Orseno will have his work cut out for him, with Metra also reporting some of the most dismal on-time performance numbers in its history. Although Orseno envisioned no drastic changes, he vowed to make the rail service better.
"I think if we do the right things for the right reasons, things will automatically take care of themselves," he said.
Orseno's appointment at Tuesday's Metra board meeting came only hours before the latest demand for the resignation of three of its six remaining members — from the public officials who appointed them.
For the past two months, Metra's day-to-day decisions have been made by Orseno, the deputy executive director of operations, and Alex Wiggins, deputy director in charge of administration.
Metra's board voted unanimously to name Orseno to the temporary post, saying it made the most management sense to have a single person running the agency, as well as fulfilling a requirement in state law.
"We run a railroad, and Don is a railroad guy," Metra's acting Chairman Jack Partelow said. "He's been at it a long time and been very successful, and we expect that to continue."
Orseno will fill the vacancy left when the board ousted CEO Alex Clifford in June, sparking a controversy that prompted calls for the entire board to step down and investigations regarding patronage by the Regional Transportation Authority and two state inspectors general.
Unlike Clifford, who had operated a division of the Los Angeles County's bus agency, Orseno, 58, is a Chicago-area native and once operated trains as an engineer, racking up more than 40 years' experience, including nearly 30 at Metra.
Orseno left the Rock Island when it folded in 1980 and then worked for Chicago and North Western as an engineer until joining Metra in 1984. He served in several management positions at Metra before becoming chief operations officer. His salary will remain at $178,500 a year, Metra said.
After the vote, Orseno praised Metra's employees, saying that on recent occasions they have been "painted with a bad brush (but) they shook it off and did what they needed to do."
His first challenge will be to improve Metra's performance. The latest records show that all of Metra's 11 lines ran far below the agency's goal of 95 percent for June, with the BNSF line, Metra's busiest, coming in last at 88.5 percent.
Orseno said June's troublesome weather was the culprit, with storms wreaking havoc on rail lines and passengers' schedules.
Systemwide, Metra's overall June performance was 92.4 percent, far below the agency's target. For the regular rider, that equates to nearly two late trains out of every 20 trips.
But even the 92.4 percent score does not give a clear picture for many riders. On the BNSF line, which hauls more than 67,000 riders a day, there were 142 late trains during peak hours in June, or about an 86.9 percent score, records show.
Partelow said Orseno's railroad experience and qualifications tipped the scale in his favor. Wiggins has been at Metra for the past 16 months, having come from the North County Transit District in Oceanside, Calif., where he was chief administrative officer.
After the meeting, four Cook County Commissioners submitted a nonbinding resolution to the full commission calling on their appointees to step down in order to restore public confidence in the commuter rail agency. The commissioners' plan would allow the trio to continue serving until their replacements can be seated.
The board currently has six members, the bare minimum needed to form a quorum. It does not have the supermajority needed to make major decisions such as hiring a permanent executive director and electing a chairman.
One of the six, board member Don De Graff, bristled at the suggestion from the suburban Cook County Board members that he resign along with Arlene Mulder of Arlington Heights and William Widmer III of Evanston.
"We have an outstanding group of six individuals remaining on the board," said De Graff, who also serves as village president of South Holland. "It is irresponsible to replace any of the six who are willing to serve and stay the course."
Mulder and De Graff questioned the wisdom of the move and expressed an unwillingness to quit. Under state law, they can be removed only by voluntary resignation, a supermajority vote of the Metra board or by the governor if the inspector general has found an ethical violation.
"I've never walked away from a tough situation," Mulder said. "I want to stay and right the ship."
The County Board is expected to consider the resolution next month. The county commissioners have discouraged the remaining board members from taking any "substantive action" until their replacements can be seated.
The resolution comes a week after the RTA issued a scathing audit report that suggested Metra officials misled the public when they repeatedly suggested that Clifford's unusually high severance package saved the taxpayers millions in litigation costs.
The RTA report found that the agency had an insurance policy that included a $150,000 deductible and would cover legal fees and settlements up to $10 million.
"The public has grown suspicious and skeptical as more allegations surface making it impossible for the remaining Metra board members to continue in their positions with any public confidence," the resolution reads.
The commissioners' resolution specifically cites the RTA audit in asking for the resignations.
"There are going to be more reports coming in the future," Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman said. "The sooner that we can get the resignations, the less of a distraction it will be when those reports come out."
Rather than resign, board members said Tuesday that appointing authorities need to name replacements as soon as possible for the five who have resigned.
Partelow said he expected that at least two new board members would be named by the end of September, giving the board eight votes, enough to name a permanent chairman and executive director.
Board member Jack Schaffer of McHenry County said board members have spoken about possibly rehiring Clifford but have done so only in the broadest terms. The suggestion was made by Clifford's lawyer as a way to resolve the thorny severance package issues. Serious discussions about the issue won't begin until there are enough board members to hire a permanent executive director, Schaffer said.
Still, Schaffer said he believes that the rumblings about Clifford's possible rehiring prompted the calls for the three remaining Cook County appointees on the board to resign.
"The three appointees left are saddened but (made wiser) by the events this summer. They won't be buffaloed anymore," Schaffer said. "Their appointing authorities want three new people who can be buffaloed and do exactly what they want."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun