Metrolinx Manages Public Participation

In today’s Globe and Mail, Jeff Gray has an article about the a Positioning and Communications Strategy dated July 10, 2008 from Metrolinx.  Gray had requested this document from Metrolinx via a Freedom of Information request, and what came back contained one deletion on its final page.

An uncensored copy of that page found its way to the Globe and Mail, and the missing text makes for interesting reading.  Under the heading “Consultation Process”, we find:

Our consultation period needs to be tightly structured and telescoped.  The last thing we need is for this to be highjacked by nimbies or local politicians on the make.  These should be mainly informational briefings.  We should salt the sessions with supporters.  An orgy of consultation will mire this in controversy and delay.

Metrolinx Chair Rob MacIsaac disavows this text saying “those are not my words” and that the paragraph in question was “something that I did not especially agree with”.

I will take MacIsaac at his word, but two critical points remain:

  • These may not be MacIsaac’s words, they are somebody’s or they wouldn’t have appeared in this paper.  They show a mindset bent not just on controlling and streamlining public participation, but of treating any criticism as a force to be neutralized rather than as constructive alternatives to the Gospel of Metrolinx.
  • The nature of the advice in this paragraph, although embarrassing, is no different in character from the sort of comments found throughout the document.  The text was severed on the ground that it was confidential advice to the government, an excuse that is transparently inappropriate.  The Privacy Commission has ruled on several occasions that embarrassment is not valid grounds for withholding information.  Who decided to sever this paragraph from the version sent to the Globe?  Did Rob MacIsaac participate in this decision?

Metrolinx public participation was, in fact, largely structured as information sessions with limited scope for meaningful input.  As the Regional Plan went through various drafts, some public, others private, there was a consistent sense that actually changing anything was almost impossible.

Critiques of demand projections and network structures were met with claims that it was too expensive and time consuming to look at alternatives even though (a) that’s what planning is all about and (b) more recently published Metrolinx studies show clearly that refinements continued to be made in the demand model and network layout.

Metrolinx professes a love of public participation, but their planning process is quite secretive and controlled.  Even the “public advisory committee” is subject to a gag agreement, and this group is expected to provide support for the RTP.  The last time I looked, “public advice” was public, and members of advisory bodies are free to dissent.  If Metrolinx wants trained seals, just hire more consultants.

The process of detailed benefits case analysis is conducted completely out of the public eye, and even when reports emerge, the data in them is too superficial to permit an analysis of how the results were calculated.

Quite recently, indeed, there has been a change in the methodology that causes the value of auto trips diverted to transit to be priced at a much higher level (compare the Scarborough RT and VIVA BCA reports) with the effect that the financial “benefit” of the transit investment appears greater than it might actually be.  This is the hallmark of an agency in a defensive mode trying to put the best possible face on its work.

Metrolinx could be doing a lot of good work, but this is undermined by its secrecy and its distrust of the very communities it serves.  If Metrolinx assumes that opponents are all nimbies or politicians “on the make” at Metrolinx’ expense, then it is short-changing the public.  Indeed, if the politicians on the Board are grandstanding when they don’t happen to agree with the Chair, this shows contempt for the foundations of the organization.

MacIsaac may not have written those words, but whoever did, and whoever approved hiding them from the Globe do not belong in the public service.