Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘SoCoBriTCA

TransLink board cautioned on risks of secrecy

with one comment

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

Pay hike self-indulgent for public service board

with 10 comments

Miro Cernetig, Vancouver Sun

Published: Monday, February 11, 2008

Opinion piece continues the expressions of disapproval of the new SoCoBriTCA Board’s big pay increase. Miro points out that Jimmy Pattison ran Expo for $1 – and so does Jack Poole at VANOC. Of course we do not want to limit board memberships to the super rich. He talks about the public service ethic, which of course is always used to justify low pay to councillors, so very few do it as a full time job.

The issue I think is the use of the term “professional” about the Board – and the confusion with what companies pay their board members. For a Regional Transportation Authority is not a company and should not be treated as though it is. Because it is part of the system of regional government. Yes, the Authority needs professionals and it has them – they are called staff. Just like the municipalities employ engineers and planners and all the rest. And have to pay rates equivalent to what these people could earn if they went to the consulting companies in those fields, less a bit to reflect much better terms and conditions of employment and what should be more job security, as the workload is much less variable.

The current model was a retrograde step, imposed by the whim of a politician who makes decisions first and thinks (if at all) afterwards. The job his professional advisers have is coming up with justifications for his increasingly capricious decisions. What the GVTA needed was more accountability and that required (in my opinion) a directly elected board. For Mayors in this region show that they are first and foremost responsible to their municipality – as they should be given who votes for them. Their reactions last week to the pressing need for a metropolitan police force are merely the latest manifestation of this local focus. For at the regional level, we need people who are focused on regional issues. The regional authority needs to be concerned with both land use and transportation. Pretending that these are separate issues is the root cause of the current mess we are making – which let the province back in, with a vengeance. So any reform of the GVTA needed to deal with “Metro” too – which is also not directly elected but at least has population weighted votes on issues of regional importance.

Maybe “self indulgent” is a bit harsh. After all it was Mike Harcourt who determined their pay levels – and they had only two choices – take it or leave it. And given the overheated hot tub they have jumped into, I am not all surprised they feel in need of compensation. I just somehow doubt they are worth it – or are going to earn it. They are doing Falcon’s bidding, so they feel they are worth what is being offered. I will be very surprised indeed if anyone else does.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 11, 2008 at 9:06 am

Posted in regional government, transit

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