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.

18 thoughts on “Metrolinx Manages Public Participation

  1. “Even the “public advisory committee” is subject to a gag agreement, and this group is expected to provide support for the RTP.”

    This is news to me…

    There was no gag agreement.


    Andrae Griffith
    Metrolinx Citizens Advisory Committee

    Steve: Please see the amended bylaw governing the advisory committee approved at the February Metrolinx board meeting.

    In Section 3.6, Reports to the Board, is the following:

    Neither the Advisory Committee nor the Advisory Committee members, whether individually or otherwise, shall publicly release any report or disclose recommendations pertaining to the Advisory Committee’s RTP-related work commissioned hereunder unless first discussed with the Chair and approved for public release.


  2. 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.

    I agree with the thrust of your post, Steve, but doesn’t “public advisory” in this context refer to advisory from [representatives members of] the public to Metrolinx, not from Metrolinx to the public? If this is the case, I would not expect that advice to Metrolinx from an advisory committee drawn from the public would be unencumbered by some form of confidentiality agreement.

    Such an agreement ought not to preclude “dissent” by those individuals, but it might reasonably require advisors to dissent in their own voice, rather than by divulging specific goings-on, pre-draft plans, informal discussions, deliberations, and so forth. For example, one could emerge from a committee meeting and say “I don’t think ICTS is a good fit for Eglinton” to a reporter, but not “during a coffee break one of their consultants just told me that he prefers LRT to ICTS but that the fix is in”, or spill the beans about a particular decision in advance, etc.

    Steve: We have differing views of public input. I can agree to a “permissive” structure where certain materials are considered confidential and these are explicitly identified in advance. After all, the meetings of the advisory committee are to be held in public unless it resolves itself into an in camera session.

    However, if the default mode is to be confidential until explicitly released by the Metrolinx chair, then this isn’t “public advice” at all. Indeed, if there is a major dissent on, say, running ICTS on Eglinton, it would never see the light of day.

    Please refer to the bylaw extract I included with a previous comment.


  3. Section 4.1, second point – “even when projects are delivered and operated by other, it should be made clear that at every stage they are ‘powered by Metrolinx'”.

    Wow…. just wow. This is very reveals a lot about someone’s mindset, and not in a good way. I’d love to know what you think about that one, Steve.

    Steve: Metrolinx wants its name and logo (and maybe even similing pictures suitable for use in election materials) on everything, even on projects where the lion’s share of the work was already done by various local agencies and/or GO Transit.

    I prefer to keep the logos to those of Ontario (the trillium, and by extension we taxpayers who foot the bill for a lot of this) plus any local agencies involved.

    Metrolinx is at best a co-ordinating agency, not a construction or operating company. One explicit part of the discussions about future operations has been the recognition that local agencies would continue, and we don’t need a Metrolinx logo (whatever it is this week) on top of what’s already there.


  4. Comments regarding the Globe article came in via another Metrolinx thread. I have excerpted them here.

    Gord comments:

    Jeff Gray has an interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail. I would be interested in what your perspective on this article is. This article seems to confirm my suspicions about Metrolinx and its relationship to the provincial government.

    Ed comments:

    The Globe confirms Steve’s opinion of Metrolynx’s (Metrolynx’? Metrolynzzzz?) consultation process [quotation of article snipped].

    Michael Vanner comments:

    Today’s Globe article might just justify Dalton’s impatience with Mr. Mac Issac and the gang. I especially like the “Powered by Metrolynx” in the closing.

    When it comes to who should be in the drivers seat making decisions, hands down it’s the politicians. They are “our” representatives that we have the discretionary power to show the door if we don’t like their decisions. The “professionals” are engaged to provide opinions and options so the politicians can make informed decisions. This is a far superior alternative to having a benevolent dictatorship.

    On a side note the Globes’s effort on getting this information out about Metrolynx ties nicely into the other very active discussion you’ve got going on the media and violence. The media love them or loathe them are trying to achieve some public good, albeit for money.


  5. This article confirms my suspicions and fears of Metrolinx (as I have stated several times in various threads). It would seem to me that there is no accountability within this organization – you can do undemocratic things and hide behide anonominity. The Premier should be held accountable for this report – after all he led the formation of Metrolinx and this is a Provincial agency. I fear that this seems to be the new provincial policy to target your opponents (just look at the Green Energy Bill and how any opponents will be sidelined as NIMBY’s).

    I am particulary disturbed by the last paragraph of the article where it states: “even where projects are delivered and operated by others, it should be clear that they are ‘Powered by Metrolinx'”. This would suggest that Metrolinx will take credit for EVERY transit initiative in Ontario even if they are not involved (in planning, funding, etc.). Given Metrolinx’s opposing viewpoint on TTC’s Transit City project, it will be interesting to watch this agency claim credit for Transit City.

    I feel that it is time to allow Metrolinx to “die” and to re-form as a regional tranportation agency that will actually serve the public good in an open and transparent way. After all it is the taxpayers who actually “own” these organizations.


  6. Under the amended bylaw this may be true, but don’t forget that the committee did it’s work from November 2007 to November 2008. Even if the text is identical it’s a very far stretch to go from “give us your advice first” to “gag order”. The phrase ‘gag order’ implies “don’t tell anyone ever,” and this couldn’t be further from the truth.

    We were free to dissent from the board’s position, and did regarding the timing of the introduction on funding tools and the potential to supplement the board with non-political stakeholders. This led to the report on new funding tools being commissioned immediately instead of in 2013.


  7. Steve: We have differing views of public input.

    Yes, and no… I think each form (a committee drawn from the public, providing advice in camera vs. a committee drawn from the public that performs an advisory role before an audience) has its place in policymaking. It could be useful to have privileged closed-door bull sessions with representatives of various stakeholder groups at one stage as well as a public exercise more in the mode of a jury or citizens’ assembly than of a focus group.

    Of course, I do not think it would be appropriate to publicize a committee of the former type as though it were the latter, and if your view of “public input” in this case is informed by representations to that effect by Metrolinx then you are right to say so.

    However, if the default mode is to be confidential until explicitly released by the Metrolinx chair, then this isn’t “public advice” at all. Indeed, if there is a major dissent on, say, running ICTS on Eglinton, it would never see the light of day.

    Is the portion of Section 3.6 you quoted above consistent with a wide-ranging “gag rule”? I’m not so sure. To be sure one couldn’t emerge and hand out photocopies of draft reports, but reading it out of context it is not clear that expression of personal preferences regarding the suitability of one course or another is off limits. There is also the question of the enforceability of the bylaw against a dissenting committee member in the event of a disclosure in the public interest (i.e. whistleblowing).

    Certainly someone uncomfortable with this restriction shouldn’t agree to participate, but to me that doesn’t render the exercise illegitimate in and of itself. The problem would be for Metrolinx or a member of such a committee to willfully misrepresent the nature of the consultation.


  8. While this certainly would put the “con” in “consultation,” it is significant to note that this was never adopted by Metrolinx, although it is certainly still unsettling that such advice would even make it to anybody at Metrolinx at all. If the Province is spending taxpayer dollars to pay people to put forward such insulting suggestions that fly right in the face of the very industry/industries they are trying to get moving, then the Province needs a change of government.

    Steve: The sad part is that the same suspects — consultants, bureaucrats, petty politicians occupying a sinecure while awaiting something better — show up regardless of who is in power. Contempt for public participation is fairly widespread, and this shows up in remarks such as “transit should be run by the professionals”. It’s nimbyism in reverse — only the elect, the high priesthood of transit are fit to read the sacred scrolls and interpret them for we, the laity.


  9. Metrolinx, is only doing one thing. Prolonging the time to start actual construction and improvements, by fighting like a bunch of school children. Quick wins are designed to keep people like me at bay from chewing them out. The Ontario government is nothing more then the auto sector’s little puppet, and to be frank as a taxpayer I am sick of it. I am getting so sick of the lack of common sense from all aspects of all parties who don’t build nothing, sick of politicans needing their egos a shot of steriods by running their mouths for Go Transit “improvements”, that will only see multilevel parking garages at Go stations.

    It seems that no one wants to build a network that will benefit the communities it serves. Why can’t we have our LRT across eglinton? If metrolinx wants to haul communters across area codes, why can’t they build their own fare by distance system, oh wait.

    Why is it always the people who drive their Lexuses and luxury SUV’s have to treat transit as a playtoy? Talk to people who use the system, or better yet have someone who has seen it all on the TTC for many years run the damn system. I know I can do wonders out in Durham, I have rode every system out there before amalgamation, and rode almost every route in durham, (Exceptions are the north durham routes…they run once a day two days a week…pathetic) and believe me, we can achieve a 20% share within five years if the routes wasn’t so focused on Go train arrivels and departures. For the record the 915 Taunton bus may achieve 10 minute headways in the rush as soon as this summer, and Durham doesn’t want artiuclated buses!


  10. Steve, while I’m not defending any communications strategy, I’d be curious if Metro Toronto at the time undertook public consultations in the 60s when the B-D subway was built or for the road heavy 1966 Official Plan. I sense there is some nostalgia among planners for that “announce it and build it” era. Though it is interesting to note that even then, we managed to build mostly the good stuff and avoid the bad.


  11. I don’t know why you are all so shocked. Did you really think that they were looking for input? The whole process is Machiavellian, designed to make you feel good and think that your input is important. At the Brampton meeting for the Hurontario LRT we were told over and over that Metrolynx provided the funding for the meetings. About the only decisions that have to be made are the route through downtown Brampton to the GO station and whether the right of way would be in the middle of the street, the east side or the west side. One person came in with a radical off the wall proposal to move the GO station and transit hub to the old hospital site and run the LRT along the river to get there. His total proposal caught everyone by surprise but in the end the reaction was “why didn’t I think of that?” It will be interesting to see if they actually investigate this proposal, but am I surprised by the article, NO!


  12. I don’t think that this can be blamed on consultants. We need the consultants to confirm what is and isn’t physically possible, because that’s advanced knowledge. Public relations is the responsibility of the Province and their staff (and the same applies to municipalities, and even the Feds), the consultants are there for the technical matters of the project, like engineering issues.

    Steve: Moreover, consultants write position papers based on the perceived wishes and biases of their clients. This document would not just spring out of the air without some substantive input.


  13. Tom said … “Steve, while I’m not defending any communications strategy, I’d be curious if Metro Toronto at the time undertook public consultations in the 60s when the B-D subway was built or for the road heavy 1966 Official Plan. I sense there is some nostalgia among planners for that “announce it and build it” era. Though it is interesting to note that even then, we managed to build mostly the good stuff and avoid the bad.”

    There was no public consultation in the 50s/60s– projects were rammed down our throats, but things actually got done! I think that’s what Metrolinx is trying to say — that even the best possible plan can be quickly derailed. I don’t know why everyone is so shocked.

    I’m pretty sure that if extensive public consultation went into the Bloor-Danforth subway, it would not have been built in its current form because …

    a) there was significant opposition to the subway from merchants on the Danforth at the time
    b) there was significant opposition to removing streetcars from Bloor and Danforth and losing over 1/2 of the streetcar stops — a parallel bus service was almost reinstated after the subway opened
    c) the ROW and open section near Keele would never have been approved
    d) there was more support for a Queen-U route which resembles the DRL instead of the Bloor-University-Y system

    Steve: The distinction is between putting your best foot forward for a plan that is demonstrably beneficial, and trying to slant “public participation” to give the impression that you have strong support. The word here is “shill”, although I suspect Metrolinx would simply have invited sympathetic folks to their meetings rather than paid pro-Metrolinx agitators.

    However, I do know that at one point Metrolinx attempted to recruit someone to act specifically as a “Steve Munro” critic. Were they so paranoid, so uncertain of the worth of their own plan that they needed to undermine me with a paid counter-critic? Sorry, but that wasn’t the action of some rogue consultant.

    Finally, on the subject of public participation and plans rammed down people’s throats, there is the small matter of a certain expressway network that, thanks to people who today might be called “nimbies and local politicians on the make”, never got built. It failed because it would demonstrably have done great damage to the city. The Metrolinx RTP is (I hope) nowhere in the same league.


  14. I just watched e squared transport that I recorded yesterday at 3:00 a. m. on TVO. The programme was “sponsored” by GO Transit and Metolynx.

    In the 90’s Portland decided to embrace public transit and redeveloped the Pearl District, an abandoned rail yard downtown. According to the programme they used “streetcars” and Light rail Transit. The programme does show single unit articulated low floor streetcars operating in the street and multiple unit light rail vehicles. They also have aerial trams that link one university campus on the waterfront with the rest of the campus 2000 feet away on top of a mountain across an interstate. It looks like a ski lift but it seems to work. Apparently the land values near the “streetcar line” went up 400%. Portland has reduced their carbon emissions and private vehicle miles travelled while having a 4% annual population increase.

    If you get the chance to see this programme again watch it. Some actor named Brad Pitt does the narration.

    Steve: I wonder if GO and Metrolinx knew what they were sponsoring, or if they simpply bought the spot on the basis of a general description of the program?

    I will keep my eye on the TVO program listings, and if this shows up on a repeat broadcast (it is part of a series of six programs), I will post a notice here.

    See also the series website which includes brief clips from each of the six episodes, as well as full versions on their Webcast page.

    By the way, I particularly liked the phrase “activists and civic minded people”. The folks out there are not always the enemy.


  15. Hey, i think Gord is onto something here. I agree with him 100 per cent. I haven’t read anything good about Metrolinx in a long time, if ever so why not reform it and download it into a regional agency?


  16. This topic of being “consulted” is very important. If one could trust the plans to be good value for good, effective transit, then one could relax with a truncated or non-existent “consultation” process. But there are some gaping holes in the planning, and they contemplate spending very large sums of tax money with significant long-term repercussions that also include operating costs eg. Sheppard.

    So we absolutely need to have meaningful consultations; it would really help to have some small percentage for public interest groups and EA intervenors to guide the projects better.

    Egs of less-wise to bad planning include the Front St. Extension, the WWLRT, and now I’m worried that the Blue 22/GO proposal will wipe out the chance to do an effective Downtown Relief Line as there is a lot of competition for little space/land including the Rail path, though it should be a tertiary project, after the DRL.


  17. Based on the Metrolinx meetings I saw, controlling public input *is* MacIsaac’s style. He would breeze in, make a short speech, take NO questions, then breeze out.

    You could talk to the other people at your table. But they may not even have included a Metrolinx employee. (Some of the note-takers were actually volunteers.)

    You could even get up from your table and talk to a Metrolinx employee one on one at the back of the room.

    What you couldn’t do is ask any questions or make any statements in front of the whole crowd.

    Methinks MacIsaac doth protest too much.


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