This week, Toronto lived through the high drama of Transit Wars, Episode II: The Fords Strike Back, when a majority of the Toronto Transit Commission board members called a special meeting on Feb. 21 for the sole purpose of firing TTC general manager Gary Webster.
This dismissal was bald political revenge for Webster’s gall in providing honest expert advice that contrasts with the mayor’s stated objectives. Mayor Rob Ford has been clear about his plan: “People want subways, that’s all.” Drawing on 35 years of transit experience and fine-grained study of the specifics, Webster told councillors, in response to direct questions earlier this month, that building subways along Sheppard East and Eglinton East would be a mistake. “We don’t recommend spending money you don’t have on assets you don’t need,” he said, explaining that the number of passengers expected in the next four decades on those corridors would mean empty subway cars and massive expenditures.
He made those remarks at a Feb. 8 meeting called by TTC chair Karen Stintz and a majority of city councilors, during which council overruled the mayor’s transit plan. Clearly, the mayor would prefer to fire Stintz, but can’t because he doesn’t command support for that move from a majority of city council. He is, however, still able to count on five transit-commission henchmen to do his bidding—a bare majority of the nine-member TTC board. So Frank DiGiorgio, Denzil Minnan-Wong, Norm Kelly, Vince Cristani and Cesar Palacio oozed the slimy political revenge on Webster they wished they could drop on Stintz. DiGiorgio, who is generally as effective and noteworthy on city council as a potted plant, got on the front page of the Toronto Star this week when he explained the gang’s rationale: Webster would be fired for not “respecting the office of the mayor.” He went on to say, the Star reported, that “the responsibility of the city’s bureaucracy is to follow the will of the mayor and achieve the objectives set out by his mandate.”
This is precisely wrong. The bureaucracy is supposed to provide apolitical, good-faith advice to city council (not to the mayor alone) and follow the instructions of city council (not the mayor alone) on how to proceed. Electoral mandates, to the extent that they can be decoded at all, are purely the concern of politicians. City staff, at the direction of council, deal in gathering facts and information, and forming expert advice. The city’s ombudsman, Fiona Crean, warned in her annual report last year of the burgeoning “‘politicization’ of the public service.” She said that increasingly, “the space between legislator and public servant is…razor thin and in significant jeopardy.”
It is, of course, the right and sometimes the responsibility of elected officials, including the mayor, to act contrary to the advice they receive from staff. Council has done this under every administration. But it is also their responsibility to listen to that advice. And, in turn, it is the responsibility of the bureaucratic staff to be, in Crean’s words, “non-partisan, professional, ethical and effective.” This is what Gary Webster has done. And he was fired for it.
This has implications that go far beyond the war raging over Toronto transit, and even beyond the message it sends to present and future staff that they will be disciplined for performing their jobs in an ethical manner. It indicates to the rest of us, loud and clear, that the mayor and his allies on city council are not interested in hearing the facts of a problem articulated so they can decide on appropriate solutions. Instead, they want staff to supply only those facts that justify the solution the mayor has already decreed. Staff are expected to disregard the instructions of city council and fictionalize their reports to suit the mayor’s fantasy-world solutions. When something like this is happening, we are all but certain to waste oodles of real-world money on things that don’t serve our needs. Worse yet, we won’t even know how to fix the situation, because those who would tell us where we’ve gone wrong will have been silenced or fired.