Larry Huggins had been at the helm of the Metra commuter rail company’s board of directors as acting chairman for over a year. On Nov. 2, it became clear he would not be voted to permanently fill the position, so he withdrew his bid.
The South Side businessman had been the acting chairman since 2010 after the previous chair, Carole Doris, quit. But after Huggins failed to secure the eight votes needed to become Metra’s permanent chairman, he pulled out of the running and urged unanimous support for Director Brad O’Halloran – who was appointed to the board last year.
Huggins told the Chicago Citizen that it was important that the chairmanship go to a Cook County board director because it ususally doesnt. He explained that historically, the role had been dominated by Republican directors representing the collar counties. The commuter rail company serves Cook, DuPage, McHenry, Lake, Will and Kane Counties.
“It’s important that the chairmanship come from Cook County,” he said. “What the chairman has to do is to make sure that the city of Chicago along with suburban Cook County is represented fairly. You can’t treat the riders from the southern part of the (Metra) district any different from the riders in the northern part of the district.”
At the board’s October meeting, a potential change to the bylaws prompted some elected officials and community leaders to attend the meeting and speak out against the proposed change. Huggins said there was a “movement” by the Republicans on the board to establish a rule that only a collar county or suburban Cook County director could serve as chairman.
“That was a slap in the face to the city (of Chicago),” Huggins told the Chicago Citizen.
After passionate pleas from Chicago aldermen and a congressman, one board director said the “stupid” and “illegal” idea wouldn’t even come up for a vote.
At that same meeting, the directors tried to elect O’Halloran as chairman but he didn’t get the votes needed. Nov. 2 would have yielded the same results had Huggins not bowed out.
“It has truly been an honor for me to serve on this board for the past 15 years; as a matter of fact, as the first African-American that was ever appointed to this board,” Huggins said at the meeting. “And I have always had a respect and admiration for this organization.”
Metra has been trying to bounce back from the black eye the agency took after longtime operations director Phil Pagano committed suicide in 2010 following announcement of a state’s attorney probe into his finances. Doris quit short after Pagano’s death and as of late the board has been trying to redeem – and distance – itself from that sullied time. Metra board members are appointed by county directors – in Chicago, the mayor appoints – and each member represents a region the rail company services.
The agency just wrapped up public hearings on its $713 million 2013 budget which does not include fare increases or service cuts. Metra commuters were whopped with increases of up to 30 percent in 2012.
Several on the 11-member board offered glowing praise for Huggins’ leadership, as they pledged to work cooperatively as a unit and with O’Halloran.
Director Stanley Rakestraw, the only other African American on the board, said Huggins helped the board through the “difficult 2010 crisis, our worst times in recent history.”
“It was through his leadership we’ve turned it around. We’re no longer in crisis mode,” he said at the meeting, as he nominated Huggins for chairman.
Director Arlene Mulder – who is also mayor of Arlington Heights – didn’t vote for Huggins but said the former acting chairman had been “amazing.”
“I think the connections, the relationships that you built throughout the state — and probably nationally — has helped Metra tremendously and I think your participation on this board continues to be very critical because we are a team.
Huggins’ time as chair had not been smooth sailing all along. He said he “upset” some people when he worked to get $4.2 million for the 35th Street/Lovana “Lou” Jones/Bronzeville station on the Metra Rock Island rail line on the South Side. The station was dedicated in May 2011 in homage to the late state Representative Jones who died in 2006.
His leadership legacy will also include the Englewood Flyover Project. U.S. Bobby Rush, D-1, mounted a vehement protest earlier this year after finding out that the Metra board had issued an “unacceptable” amount of contracts to African American contractors and construction workers for the $141 million project planned in the heart of Englewood, a community hard-hit by poverty and unemployment. Metra ended up awarding more contracts to African Americans as part of the agreement.
“Since you’ve been acting chairman you’ve certainly highlighted — and I think it absolutely needed to be highlighted — the outreach for minority participation and you have been a strong advocate with respect to minority participation,” said O’Halloran. He vowed to continue to “lead that charge.”
By Rhonda Gillespie