Shortly after 10pm at the end of a marathon meeting of the Toronto Transit Commission, Chair Karen Stintz proposed the following motion which was adopted:
That the TTC endorse the establishment of a skill-based Commission and work in partnership with the city on a model for the TTC.
That consideration be given to the establishment of a citizen steering committee to oversee and provide input into the model.
Regular readers here will know that I oppose removing political control over the TTC because any agency spending $2.5-billion of public money, and making decisions with policy as well as purely operational effects, needs to be accountable through the machinery of an elected Council.
With this motion, Toronto will begin the discussion of how the TTC should be governed, and I am starting this thread as a place where readers can jump into the fray.
To begin, I have concerns about the phrase “skills-based”. What skills? Do we want transit experts (a commodity rather thin on the ground in North America generally), business people to ride herd on budgeting and contract management, customer service gurus, technology wizards? Don’t we already have transit management who are supposed to provide these functions for the TTC, and if not, why have those skills not be fostered and, where necessary, imported into the organization?
To what degree will these skillful Commissioners have the ability to influence or change management proposals or the day-to-day operation of the transit system? Will they make cogent suggestions about how to keep Dufferin buses from running in packs, will they become cheerleaders for management, or will they hold that these are “operational decisions” in which the Commission (expert or otherwise) should not interfere?
The additional layer of a citizen steering committee is even more troubling. Just how much “steering” will such a committee be allowed to do with two layers of experts on one side — the “skilled” Commission and the professional staff — and the political masters at Council and Queen’s Park on the other? What sort of person will sit on this committee? Will we have the usual suspects, the politicians in waiting, the lobbyists, the friends of those in power, and how will this be any more effective than members of Council? Will “steering” consist only of broad policy matters, with decisions such as whose route gets what service left to the “skilled” folks below? What role, other than budget approval, will Council have?
In this discussion, I would be interested in hearing of governance models elsewhere. Some cities or countries have a very different culture of public service and the management of public agencies, a different set of citizen skills on which to draw, a stronger sense of citizen involvement and engagement by the professionals in transit agencies. Governance models cannot be transplanted from city to city without considering the context in which they work, or don’t.
We could have widespread citizen engagement, or we could have an agency that listens to the public at best for show, if not with complete contempt. That’s a question of the political culture of a city. Selection of a “skilled” governance body will flow directly from a desire to have the best people running our transit system, not the best-connected.
I am often asked whether I would like to be appointed to some sort of official position related to the transit system. Leaving aside the fact that this would compromise my ability to blog freely on a variety of subjects, there are the fundamental issues of responsibility and transparency. The more layers we create to govern transit, the less clear we will be about who is truly responsible, about who actually makes the decisions.
After a nine-hour Commission meeting with countless deputations who were, in the end, largely ignored, I cannot help wondering just how much influence an expert board or a citizen steering committee would have in the face of political decisions about fares, service and system planning.
We have just elected a Mayor whose motto is “I have a mandate”, who does not care to consult Council or his own Transit Commission Chair, let alone an external non-elected body or even his own Transit Commission Chair. Really big ticket items will be funded from Queen’s Park, and they are even further removed. In the end, funding and policy priorities will be dictated at the political level and, at best, a “steering committee” can only advise. The current TTC board’s makeup shows how skewed appointed bodies can be when there is a political imperative at work, and it’s hard to understand how we would get either citizens or experts who were independent of the current political flavour.
For a time, I sat on a Council-appointed Advisory Committee for the Union Station Revitalization project. Despite the fact that this was during an era of supposed citizen involvement and support from Council, our Committee was repeatedly stymied by City Staff who attempted to constrain our discussions and access to information directly contravening the mandate in our Council-approved terms of reference. Even the Mayor’s office was unable (or possibly unwilling) to overcome this problem. I eventually resigned rather than waste my time on a sham.
This is fairly typical situation for advisory groups who are more for show than substance and confer a fig leaf of “consultation” for politicians. Anyone who believes that a new arrangement for transit will be any better is in for a shock. I will take elected politicians, thank you, who can be hounded by the public and the media and held to account, eventually, for what they accomplish.