Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

TransLink board cautioned on risks of secrecy

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Jeff Nagel, BC Local News

A longish piece, but worth reading and apposite, given what I have already posted today. Kevin Falcon’s imposed structure on Translink was always going to be a bit awkward to handle. Because the only reason it was created was that Kevin did not like a decision the previous Board had taken some time to consider. They were not too keen on the Canada Line and had some very real questions to ask. I would like to be able to write that they had their doubts about the Gateway too, but if they did we did not hear about it. And what we have now is more like the Port and the Airport which were formerly federal institutions and are now supposed to be local but are completely unaccountable, and operate more like companies than public authorities. Except there are not even the equivalent of shareholder’s meetings.

Jeff has been using the FOI process to get hold of the sort of stuff that the previous board used to put on its web page. Now the previous board did not go out of their way to make it easy to find stuff. There were pdf files of board reports, and they were filed by the date of the meeting. And I could never find anything I wanted by using search engines – but usually somebody knew which day the relevant meeting had been held. Of course, minutes of meetings and decisions were somewhere else, but there was a “Board in brief” that was not the official minutes but was reliable and accurate. And of course the old Board wasn’t directly elected so I am not claiming it was adequate – but it was better than what we have now.

But the point Jeff is making is that this Board is not listening to its own staff. And what must also be remembered was that this Board was not selected for its expertise in transportation, or planning, or public accountability.

The FOI request generated 223 pages of material from the January and February board meetings.

Most of the reports would have been routinely released by the former TransLink board of mayors and councillors, who had counselled continued openness.

The information obtained details numerous decisions made secretly in recent weeks but shielded from public view – including the recent adoption of a whistleblower policy that sets rules for TransLink employees who report misconduct.

Much of the material has been blanked out and it is often impossible to tell what recommendations were made or actions taken.

What is thoroughly unsatisfactory about all this is the inevitable conclusion that since they are hiding, there must be stuff they do not want us to see. Why not? It is not as if this stuff has huge privacy or security concerns. The old Board used to meet in camera, when it had to. It also used to have premeetings, that were not official but “briefings”. So did the old Vancouver Regional Transit Commission. There were no public records of those meetings either.

The instinct of most officials is to keep things quiet and keep their heads down and avoid scrutiny as much as possible. It is not hard to find politicians who get caught up in that ethos. It is profoundly unhealthy. It is not about trying to embarrass people, or make them look any sillier than they are. It is about understanding how our money is being spent. It is about accountability and process. We deserve to kept informed and consulted. We elect governments – they are not appointed by kings or dictators. They serve at the will of the people, who can remove them if they fail to perform.

This is an important principle that has been lost sight of in the rush for efficiency and business like decision making. But public authorities – ports, airports, ferries, transit, road builders and maintainers – are not just about the bottom line, like most companies. They deal with huge issues of public significance, and most of them are more important than the financial rate of return on capital employed, which is all most PLCs care about.

Oh and one other thing before I forget – who are these “whistle blowers”? I never met one in the seven years I worked there. I was aware of people who had been got rid off , who every so often popped in public and pointed out some of the sillier things they were aware of, but they were generally ignored as eccentrics with a personal axe to grind. I do know that the people I worked for were terrified about some things that I knew about would become public. When I was terminated I was made to sign a contract which comprehensively prevented me from talking about anything, with all kinds of dire consequences. It seems that it was standard boiler plate and not specially created for me. But I have never had to keep quiet about stupid decisions because they were plain for all to see. I have never repeated gossip, and I kept no private records, so I do not need to behave like Deep Throat.

But I suspect that if this Board keeps going in this direction there will be people who will find it necessary to give unattributable information to people who can get it out. Or even publish it themselves. Many secretive organisations have found anonymous bloggers in their midst in recent years. I hope so anyway.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 6, 2008 at 10:35 am

One Response

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  1. the reason for the secrecy is simple—–translink(falcon,campbell) are going to push hard on the -port expansion–south perimeter road through the bog- port mann toll bridge- harper and the feds are not going to fork over big money on these projects—so campbell is going to need every dime for gateway ——-meanwhile talks about evergreen line will linger for years!– unless someone digs up about 9 billion! – we will also spend 100million plus to turn skytrain stations into fort knox—- and when the final olympic bill comes in for security and cost over-runs ,any small provincial surplus will be consumed signed………………………………………doubting thomas

    grant g

    April 6, 2008 at 1:06 pm

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