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politics

In Service to the Public Good, Not Mere Power

The mayor and his allies are trying to fire TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster for giving advice they didn't like. In so doing, they are making a mockery of the institution they purport to lead.

Another development that concerns me is the increasing “politicization” of the public service… Great public servants deserve our praise for showing their vision and their courage in the face of adversity. But it can be exceedingly difficult for staff to speak truth to power and provide their best advice as dutiful public servants.

[I]n the sphere of municipal governments—especially a government as large as Toronto—the space between legislator and public servant is not adequately buffered. In fact, the space is razor thin and in significant jeopardy for public servants and good governance in general.

—Fiona Crean, Ombudsman of Toronto
2011 Annual Report [PDF]

Rob Ford either doesn’t understand the basic principles of good governance, or he doesn’t care to be guided by them. Neither do Norm Kelly, Cesar Palacio, Frank Di Giorgio, Denzil Minnan-Wong, or Vincent Crisanti—the councillors (and TTC commissioners) who signed a petition yesterday calling for a special meeting to oust TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster.

Among the things good governance requires: an independent civil service, populated by staff who are committed to providing honest counsel based on research and the best available evidence, and who have the capacity to do so without interference or threat of retribution. Civil servants, by design, are not political staff—they do not change with administrations. Their purpose is specifically to survive administrations, to provide continuity and institutional knowledge and policy expertise it takes years or decades to develop, and to ensure projects that, by their nature, take more than a year or two to implement persist through changes in government. They provide stability in a system that changes with each election cycle, and they ensure government services remain on similarly firm ground.

Gary Webster isn’t being fired—for that is almost certainly what will happen this upcoming Tuesday—for failing on the job. He isn’t being fired for juicing TTC ridership stats or endangering the public or even for the much lesser but still actionable sin of lacklustre management. There are legitimate reasons to axe the TTC’s manager: say, growing customer service problems, for which some people wanted Webster to go a year or two ago. But that is not why he will be fired next week. He is being fired for saying something—under questioning by councillors, based on the information he had available to him and on his honest judgment—that Rob Ford didn’t want to hear. And by firing him, Rob Ford is blasting one of the pillars that supports modern, effective governments to rubble.

The petition, signed by five of the nine councillors who serve as TTC commissioners, calling for a special meeting to oust Webster.

Yesterday, Frank Di Giorgio told the Globe: “If I’m a top member of the bureaucracy and I can’t support a new mayor’s mandate, I should either resign or find a new position or approach.” This is a mirrored fun house version of government, everything all swollen or shrunk out of its rightful proportion. If you’re a bureaucrat your job and obligation is to investigate the ramifications of any new policy proposal, and report honestly on your findings to the politicians who will make the ultimate decisions. Webster did this a year ago, when Ford asked for an explanation of why the TTC, which decades ago supported a subway on Sheppard, had shifted to backing light rail. He compiled the research which explained his position (basically, that employment growth projections for the area had proved massively inflated, and there was nothing like the ridership potential required to make a subway a good investment) and summarized it in a report delivered to the mayor. As discovered by the Star, Rob Ford didn’t just reject that report’s conclusions—he prevented it from becoming public, and thus a part of our collective conversation about what transit Toronto should build.

Elected representatives needn’t do whatever their bureaucrats say they should; they are neither morally nor politically required to follow staff recommendations if they have strong objections to them. But nor can they be allowed to dismiss staff for insubordination on the basis of research they conduct in the course of doing their jobs. Bureaucrats investigate how feasible it is to follow through on a policy direction a politician wants to set; politicians can accept or reject their advice, but to fire those staff because they don’t automatically back you makes a mockery of the notion of an independent, apolitical civil service.

If the TTC board succeeds in firing Webster, we must ask, who will they find to replace him? No transit expert who is committed to making decisions based on sound economics, engineering, or urban planning would dare apply for the position—Ford’s made it clear he only wants yes-men and women in the job. And what of Toronto’s other high-placed bureaucrats, who run the library and social services and oversee legal decisions? What confidence can we have that they will give good advice, make good decisions, be willing to warn us of looming problems, if the price of honesty is a pink slip?

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