Two state representatives are pressing Metra's board to explain why it approved a severance agreement that could pay the commuter rail agency's departed CEO as much as $740,000.
The lawmakers also criticized Metra directors for cloaking details of the negotiations with departed CEO Alex Clifford in secrecy, as first reported Tuesday in the Tribune.
Reps. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, and David Harris, R-Arlington Heights, said they are calling for a legislative hearing into the matter.
Franks said he was shocked by the "wastefulness inherent in this decision" by Metra to pay Clifford more than the severance amount outlined in his employment contract.
"There's no legal requirement to pay Mr. Clifford these kinds of monies," Franks said. "The board could very easily have bought Clifford out of his contract or placed him on leave until it expired."
At the same time, the chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority also called for a review of whether the agreement is "financially prudent."
It would have been far less expensive, Harris said, for Metra to allow Clifford to serve out the remainder of his contract, rather than put the agency "on the hook" for a potential extra 12 months of salary, or at least $276,000.
"I'm flabbergasted at the sum involved," Harris said. "I don't follow the logic of that at all."
In his first public statement on his departure, Clifford told the Tribune on Tuesday that the confidentiality provision in the agreement precludes him from commenting on the terms or on any other circumstances relating to the negotiation of the deal.
Clifford said, however, that he plans to seek another job "as a transportation professional and CEO" immediately.
"It depends where the right job with the right fit develops," he said in an email response to questions from the newspaper.
The lawmakers, along with Rep. Deborah Mell, D-Chicago, are asking House Speaker Michael Madigan to allow them to hold a joint committee hearing into the Metra action.
Franks chairs the State Government Administration Committee, and Mell chairs the House Mass Transit Committee. Harris is a member of both panels.
There was no word late Tuesday from Madigan's office on whether the speaker would approve the hearing, which Franks hoped could be held July 8 or 9 in Springfield if lawmakers return to discuss pension reform.
Metra Chairman Brad O'Halloran and board counsel Andrew Greene did not return calls for comment Tuesday. A Metra spokesman said the agency had no comment.
The lawmakers said they did not expect taxpayers or Metra customers to foot the bill for any expenses beyond the amount Clifford is contractually owed.
The cost of the deal ought to be assumed by Metra "internally," Franks said.
As a public agency that receives state funds, Metra is obliged to account to the legislature for its budget and spending, the lawmakers said.
John Gates Jr., the RTA chairman, said Tuesday that he has told the RTA staff to immediately begin a detailed review of the separation agreement.
The RTA is responsible for fiscal oversight of Metra, the CTA and Pace.
"While Metra is responsible for decisions regarding the staffing of its agency, the RTA has a duty and obligation to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being expended properly," Gates said in a statement.
Franks and Harris said they were angered that the agreement between Metra and Clifford pledged both sides to secrecy.
"I recognize and appreciate that there are elements of confidentiality in executive contracts, but there should not be a contract shrouded in secrecy," Harris said. "This does not sit well."
Harris said he was particularly concerned that Metra board member Arlene Mulder, the longtime mayor of the Arlington Heights and a friend, would not discuss the agreement she voted to approve.
Franks has long been critical of Metra's board for "a lack of oversight" in allowing former Executive Director Phil Pagano to take $475,000 in unapproved vacation pay.
Pagano committed suicide May 7, 2010, just as Metra's board was about to fire him.
"This is the same group, the same board, that was asleep at the wheel," Franks said. "Instead, they chose to give (Clifford) more than his predecessor allegedly looted from the agency in the first place and send the bill to the taxpayers."
With a 9-1 vote Friday, Metra's board accepted Clifford's resignation as CEO and approved the separation agreement.
Metra and Clifford agreed to a deal giving him a $442,237 buyout, covering salary for the remainder of his $252,500-a-year contract, a severance payment, health insurance, and relocation and attorney fees.
Metra may also have to pay Clifford up to $300,000 if he does not find another job within 12 months, according to the agreement.
The 14-page agreement includes a "mutual confidentiality" clause in which board members and Clifford agree they will not "disclose the terms or any other circumstance relating to the negotiation of this agreement."
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