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Panel will recommend changes for Metra

Published: Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 11:28 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 11:29 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO – An independent panel including former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald will suggest reforms for scandal-plagued Metra and other Chicago-area transit agencies, under an executive order issued Thursday by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The move follows allegations of politically-connected hiring at the commuter rail agency and questions about power structure there and at its overseeing board, the Regional Transportation Authority. A fifth Metra board member resigned Thursday.

"There needs to a fresh look of the whole transit system for the public," Quinn told reporters after an unrelated event in Chicago. "I hope they have some recommendations that be acted upon quickly by the Legislature. Clearly, Metra, in particular, needs fundamental overhaul."

Quinn, who has formed such panels before, previewed the idea last week in the wake of criticism of the $718,000 buyout of former CEO Alex Clifford's contract. Clifford claims he was pushed out for resisting pressure on hiring and salary issues from politicians, including House Speaker Michael Madigan. A state inspector general and a legislative ethics panel are investigating the allegations.

The latest board member to step down, Stanley Rakestraw, submitted his resignation to avoid "any potential controversy" over a residency requirement. He moved to downtown Chicago after a fire at his suburban home but continued to hold a seat representing the city's suburbs.

Rakestraw's resignation leaves the Metra board with six members, the minimum needed for a quorum but not enough to replace Clifford, who resigned in June.

Quinn's 15-member panel – dubbed the Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force – will be led by Metropolis Strategies President and CEO George Ranney and Illinois Department of Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider. Other members include Robert Guy, a director for the United Transportation Union, and Sylvia Jenkins, president of Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills.

The goal of the group, according to Quinn, is "to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse and streamline operations." They are expected to make recommendations to overhaul the agencies and lawmakers are expected to consider them later in the year.

The appointment of Fitzgerald, who successfully convicted two Illinois governors over his more than 10 years in the Northern District of Illinois, should add heft to the panel's recommendations. Fitzgerald stepped down last summer and works at a downtown Chicago law firm.

The group has to issue a final report by the end of January.

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Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.

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