Updated June 21, 2012 at 7:15 pm
Two media reports indicate that the City Clerk has taken umbrage at comments in this article, and I feel compelled to reply. As a general note, my quarrel was primarily with the TTC’s representative, not with the Clerk’s staff.
From Inside Toronto:
Recent information sessions held for aspiring civilian TTC commissioners were always intended as informal drop-in sessions rather than organized meetings, said a spokesperson for the city on Wednesday.
Martin Herzog characterized the four sessions, two of which took place Tuesday in Scarborough and North York, as an opportunity for individuals interested in applying to join the TTC board to get further information about the application process.
Herzog was responding to criticism that emerged this week on how the sessions were run.
“The sessions were never designed to be meetings with formal presentations,” said Herzog, the city’s acting manager for governance structures and corporate performance. “There was no formula for this.”
Online criticism of the information sessions is completely inaccurate, said Herzog.
“There’s some stuff trickling around full of factual errors,” he said.
There are no “factual errors” in my article, and methinks the Clerk doth protest too much. Whether it was the original intent or not, Monday’s “drop in” turned into a 90-minute Q&A with the TTC’s Vince Rodo that had no prepared content, but lots of remarks that left a bad taste in my mouth particularly when coupled with earlier comments from a member of Council who sits on the Civic Appointments Committee.
As I reported, the Clerk’s Office had prepared a briefing package for those who attended and it contained a great deal of well-organized material culled from the City’s website.
Joe Borowiec of the city manager’s office dismisses the suggestion the external headhunting process has made outreach to the general public redundant. He says Munro misunderstood the intent of the public sessions, and that they were intended to be drop-in sessions rather than formal meetings.
Borowiec says that the city manager’s office is required to open the process to the public and insists that that all applications will be taken seriously.
“There’s no reason why someone who walks in off the street and picks up a form would not be a successful applicant,” Borowiec says. “We’re not looking to limit it to only corporate directors. We’re looking to reach out and communicate with anybody and everybody out there because we don’t know where those possible candidates are.”
That’s not what Rodo (the seeker of “Barons of industry”) said, and it’s not what the specifications for the job state. If Council actually intends director-level experience as a “nice to have”, not a “must have”, then they need to say that explicitly in the job ad.
Meanwhile, in answer to all who have asked, I will not be applying. Becoming a Commissioner would severely compromise my ability to comment independently and to interact with various agencies and my now-peers in the journalistic/blogging community. Much more can be achieved as an independent external voice.
Updated June 19, 2012 at 7:00 am
Yesterday evening, I attended an “Information Session” at City Hall intended to brief would-be transit commissioners on the application process and on the role of the position. For a seasoned TTC veteran, there was nothing new, but the whole point of attending was to look at the process and see who else was there.
From the outset, it was clear that the City and TTC treated the event as something they had to do, one of those obligatory bits of so-called citizen participation. For what was described as an important, high-profile Council appointment, the would-be applicants got to sit in a corner of the rotunda while TTC’s Chief Financial and Administration Officer, Vince Rodo, made an off-the-cuff and, at times, dismissive presentation.
“Sit” was not actually the word considering that over half the two-dozen present had no chairs and no effort was made to find more in the 90 minutes we were there. The City does have Committee Rooms that would have suited the event much better, but for this important briefing, we sat in the lobby while bemused city staff, officials, councillors and press gallery members wandered by wondering what was going on.
Rodo talked about the Commission’s hopes for the new “citizen” commissioners and the desire for “Barons of industry” who could bring their business expertise to the TTC. That more or less ruled out everyone present. Much later, he suggested that people could get qualifications by getting certification as a corporate director from one of the courses available at various colleges. This is not going to happen for anyone, even assuming they wanted to spend the money, between now and the July 4 application deadline.
That business expertise could include support for private sector participation, said Rodo, clearly stepping into an area of policy which is the Commission’s role, not management’s.
For a bit, we got into a discussion of the job description and requirements including “urban sustainability”. Rodo explained that this involved the linkage of city growth and development with public transit, and the ability of citizens to get around without owning a car. The irony of making such a claim for the TTC while standing only a stone’s throw from an elevator leading to Mayor Ford’s office passed by without comment.
Someone asked if the TTC had a sustainability plan, to which Rodo replied that it was, in effect, the City’s Official Plan. What he didn’t mention was that the TTC interfered with the creation of the current Plan to the point that there is no “transit plan” per se in it. Oddly enough, earlier the same day, TTC Chair Karen Stintz presented a motion at Planning and Growth Management Committee asking that:
City Council request that the City’s planning staff work collaboratively with the Toronto Transit Commission to develop a list of transit priorities, to be approved by City Council, and that these priorities be included in the Official Plan review.
Rodo gave as examples of the TTC’s environmental commitment the purchase of hybrid buses and new light rail vehicles. Well, yes, except that the TTC isn’t buying hybrid buses any more because they have proved to be unreliable and not cost-effective.
A discussion of customer service and marketing campaigns took us off into familiar TTC territory of blaming the passengers. Rodo actually said that the problem with excessive use of the Passenger Assistance Alarms arises in part because people ride the TTC without adequate preparation — have a good meal and lots to drink because you’ll be packed in and need your strength. Delays from subway fires arise from garbage on the tracks — never mind the infrequency with which it is cleaned up by the TTC, or the fire smells arising from overheated electrical equipment on trains. Doors are jammed because riders insist on trying to board trains even when crews close the doors on them with or without looking (a problem made worse by the new convention of placing the guards at the rear of 450-foot long trains).
This is the self-serving “customer service” crap we are used to hearing from the TTC, and it’s not the sort of thing I would want to encourage in would-be commissioners, some of whom might actually hope to represent the riding public.
We were well into the last half-hour before questions on issues such as time required to fulfill the position, conflict-of-interest and other matters of substance were discussed.
In response to my question, the Clerk’s representative confirmed that if any candidate wishes to talk to members of Council about their appointment, this would be “lobbying” and serious candidates should get on and use the City’s Lobbyist Registry. This information is not in any of the background material for candidates, and will be especially important for those industry Barons and other politically well-connected applicants (notably absent from the briefing) who will almost certainly schmooze their way around Council offices.
The entire process left a very sour taste in my mouth. Clearly we were the “B-list”, the candidates for whom the City and TTC will make a pro-forma effort, but no more. At least the Clerk’s Office prepared a compendium of information, but for a presentation Rodo could have done a lot worse than using the briefing given at the May 29 Civic Appointments Committee meeting. At least he might have been organized and better-informed.
There is, of course, a parallel process for those “Barons of industry” that will run through an HR consultant. The folks the City really wants on the TTC will be invited in for a nice chat. They will certainly get a chair, and they won’t be treated to a rambling presentation that chews up 90 minutes of their time without conveying much information.
For the rest of us, the process is a sham and a disgrace.
The original article of June 13 follows below.
The City of Toronto has announced the process to apply for membership to the Toronto Transit Commission’s Board. Although the TTC has been made up of only Council members for many years, earlier this year Council decided to add four “citizens” (non-Councillors) to the board in October 2012. One of these members will be selected as the Vice-Chair.
An overview of the process and the role of the Commissioners was presented at the Civic Appointments Committee’s May meeting.
Council appears to be seeking expertise in areas that will not generally be found amount its own numbers from people whose backgrounds lie in the governance of large organizations and projects, finance, information technology, construction and transit.
No one applicant can possibly satisfy all of the criteria, and it is intended that the appointees will “collectively represent a range of skills, knowledge and experience”.
All of this sounds very professional until we hear from some Councillors who will actually make the selection.
Tess Kalinowski at the Star reports that one member of the Civic Appointments Committee has his own set of criteria for Commissioners.
Anyone can apply, but the city hopes to attract experts with “finance, urban transit and urban visioning experience,” said Councillor James Pasternak (York Centre) of the Civic Appointments Committee.
“We have raised the bar for the TTC,” he said, adding that candidates should understand transit financing, not just operating dollars but how to finance the TTC’s expansion.
“We’re also looking for candidates who really believe that, after approving so much in LRT in recent months, we would really get into subway visioning,” said Pasternak.
He also worries that TTC officials are too focused on a downtown relief subway line to take some of the crowding off the south end of Yonge. Although Pasternak said that’s an important part of the picture, he wants to see the Sheppard line extended west linking the Downsview and Yonge-Sheppard stations.
The last time I looked, the idea of what are, in effect, “outside directors” for the TTC was to bring a fresh view to transit issues without prejudging matters to suit Councillors or the Mayor. Pasternak seems to be saying that he wants to reinforce the Mayor’s “subways, subways, subways” approach to transit and focus on a line serving his own constituents, the Sheppard connection from Yonge to Downsview. Neither of these is mentioned in the qualifications for applicants that were approved by Council.
For her part, TTC Chair Karen Stintz noted that the DRL is already part of The Big Move (albeit on the far-distant 25-year map), but that there is “nothing to stop council from naming the North York Relief Line one of Toronto’s transit priorities” (the quote is the Star’s paraphrase). Well, yes there is. Priorities should be set because studies indicate which of many options should be at the top of the list, not just because someone draws a line on a map. If Council chooses to make transit policy on the fly, why would we even bother to have a TTC?
The most important role for the transit commission is to provide a forum where TTC policies, finance and operations can be considered in substantially more detail than at Council, and to provide advice to Council on how it should support the transit system. Council may choose to ignore TTC recommendations, but should not simply populate the Commission with trained seals whose only job is to provide the advice Councillors want to hear.
I am often asked whether I will put my name forward as a candidate. At this point, I have not made up my mind, but quotes like those attributed to Councillor Pasternak are disheartening. Simply by writing this article, I may have set my fate as a critic of a misguided view of how these important public appointments should be judged. If so, then it’s clear that real independence is not wanted on the TTC, and anyone with a genuine desire to improve transit can be far more effective working outside of the Commission and Council. I would love to be proved wrong.