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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?


  • Charles Melvin

    Big surprise. Rob Ford wants to act like an autocrat.

  • Anonymous
    • Anonymous

      Thanks. I am going ask them all to do the TTC a favour and resign during this “special meeting”.

      • Anonymous

        don’t. ask them to act in the best interests of the citizens of toronto. an insulting email will be deleted quicker than you can type it.

        • Anonymous

          True but its just so hard to write such an email without condemning their actions and their toadying up to the mayor instead of acting in the best interests of TTC riders which is supposed to be their job. Regardless a massive amount of emails opposing the firing of Webster is the only chance of them changing their minds, as incredibly unlikely as it is since they obviously are nothing but Ford’s sycophants and Ford doesn’t respond to facts/logic/reason and is a very petty and vindictive man-child.

          I think the big problem with the Ford brothers is that they’ve been spoiled rotten all their lives, they’ve never known want, have always got whatever they wanted handed to them, have never needed to work except to fill their time and even then were plopped down into managerial positions which they didn’t earn and have always been able to boss others around never having had to compromise before in their lives. Its like they never got beyond being school bullies, which I have no doubt at all they were.

  • Anonymous

    Case Ootes isn’t doing anything right now, if Ford is looking for a yes-man.

  • Miroslav Glavic

    Gary Webster has screwed up on so many things

    He is responsible for everything that goes on under his watch.

    Bus/Streetcar bunching, specially Spadina, past 8 years. still going on.

    St. Clair DISASTER. businesses closed, went WELL OVER BUDGET. If this was a private company, he would of being fired long time ago.

    He works for ONE City dept. and gets paid $200,000+. $230-ish something.

    He is no angel.

    When the bad aspects about Transit City were brought to him, he said he will “look into it” then ignored it. WWLRT is that bad aspect.

    So much wasteful spending at the TTC under his watch.

    Look at how many staff sit at the Committee room every month, the full media can’t even get a seat because the ttc staff take over all seats.

    • Anonymous

      “St. Clair DISASTER. businesses closed, went WELL OVER BUDGET. If this was a private company, he would of being fired long time ago.”

      Weren’t there two main reasons why St. Clair went so badly? … both outside of Webster’s control.

      1. City officials who wanted other non transit infrastructure repair done at the same time… aka loads of additional work which was not included in the original estimates.

      2. Major delay because of a lawsuit.

    • M Gold

      Sorry but some of these are red herrings. St Clair was a disaster during the building but it was NOT all the TTC’s fault. They were saddled with all kinds of project creep increases and the lawsuit that delayed construction. The cost over runs on St Clair were almost all due to city and Toronto Hydro changes not the TTC’s part.

      The TTC has been tone deaf at listening to public input during EA’s for St Clair and Transit City design. But this is not all Webster’s fault and the TTC commissioners have been all to ready to listen to only staff and not the public.

      A case could be made for not rehiring Gary Webster, but firing him now looks way too much like political payback for speaking truth to power. That Rob Fords subway fantasies were just that and not supported by the facts. This sets a terrible precedent for political governance of the whole city. It implies that any initiative of the staff to speaking the truth and not merely coming up with rationals for politicians wish lists will result in consequences for staff. The last paragraph of this article points out the problem so clearly.

      It is fine to say you don’t like the job Webster has done at the TTC, but to claim he has behaved so poorly he deserves firing right now at this time, a week after the mayor lost a political battle, is just wrong.

    • Anonymous

      “He is responsible for everything that goes on under his watch.”

      Within limits. What would you suggest he do when the St Clair ROW, already in progress, started climbing over budget? Scrap it all? Leave it half-built and walk away?

      He’s certainly not responsible for how certain businesses failed to adapt to construction.

      “Look at how many staff sit at the Committee room every month, the full media can’t even get a seat because the ttc staff take over all seats.”

      Is the purpose of TTC committee meetings to keep the media informed? Should staff be excluded so photographers can sit?

  • Anonymous

    Will Webster’s firing, need council’s approval?

    • Anonymous

      No – staffing decisions are made by the TTC board. Procedurally, if council wanted to overturn this they’d have to call a meeting to change the rules about how the TTC board (the nine councillors headed by Karen Stintz) is chosen, and appoint a new board composed of a different mix of councillors. That new board could then re-appoint Webster (if Webster were willing to come back).

      • Richard Murray

        Liked for the information provided, not for the situation.

  • Seann

    is there anyway council can call a special meeting again and have a vote in support of Webster?
    Is there anyway that could be binding?

  • Roger Smith

    Well, I am not in favor, of large salaries for public officials but nor I am in favor of a mayor who feels like firing anyone he disagrees with. The responsibility of the public official, is wade in when the public trust is at stake and not to be a bunch of toadies.

    Surely, there must be a counter-petition to save Gary Webster’s job. Now, I say that as a citizen and a taxpayer. Certainly, officials must be responsible public purse but when it is deemed subways will cost more and may never get completed – it falls to reason that this man is making a principled stand against the toadies.

    So, yes, I would reduce his salary through taxation, just as I would of leading executives of the banks and other Rosedale, Bridal Path, Queensway, Lawrence Park, Forest Hill, etc. residents ought to pay along with the entities that seem to be paying less and less tax thus creating the crisis that we are in (which is completely fictitious anyhow).

    And, if we are in the phase of city building – which Mayor Ford likes to win over support for subways – then he should ask his corporate buddies to pony up and pay more taxes here rather than keeping things offshore whilst asking the rest of to pay for the services they also enjoy.

    • Tluton

      WRT large salaries for public officials, the problem is that if you want competent people to run a large organization, you have to pay them a salary. Unfortunately, we’re competing with the private sector, which is what New York found out when the head of MTA quit to go to China and make three times his current salary

      If you think of the TTC as a shipping company, with over 2100 trucks (buses), a railroad with almost 1000 locomotives and cars (subways and streetcars) running on over 100 km of track, with 11000 employees moving over 465 million packages (riders) per year, how much should the CEO make?

      • Roger Smith

        Yes, I can think of a CEO of a major company and yes we are dealing with a private sector out of control. When the wages and net remuneration of the average CEO is 500 times more than the wages of their average employee.

        It is possible to curb this trend, as that is what education is for. I really don’t believe in the brain drain theory, that the best and the brightest run private industry – the Financial Crisis ought to have taught us that one. Let alone, how that American automakers are constantly losing to their Japanese or German counterparts who actually make less of a ratio than they do.

        So, yes, you can compare salaries with a shipping magnate or you can put your faith not in CEOs and management but the workers themselves to run an cost effective orderly system. It is not to say there will not be experts or professionals in the organization or even some sort of position like a CEO – but maybe they could selected from a pool of candidates or even better have the board, not CEO run the show.

        So, I think, we are both in agreement that salaries are out of wack with reality but only through dramatic change can see change.

        I do believe if we put our faith in people working for an organization, you will get better results than just some head huncho. That said, we also agree that Ford trying to fire this guy is just an exercise to scare the managers to put the harder screws on the supervisors on then down on the workers themselves. That is not to say that there is not bad workers but they can be disciplined in other ways. And, the other thing that Ford is doing is lighting multiple fires so that his opponents are confused both from the smoke screen that fires create and also the work of putting out those fires. And, the bleeding obvious that he does not want any dissent from his Generals – City CEOs lest it spread to the remainder of the Officer corps which might inspire mutiny.

        • Roger Smith

          Just wonder if there is still a means other than filling the InBoxes of toadies that a counter petition could be struck. That way Ford might get the Referendum he wants but it is likely to go the other way than how he planned it.

  • Lister

    Can council call a special meeting to fire the mayor? I mean Webster’s contract ends in March 2013. What is firing him now going to achieve? Bubpkiss, that’s what.

    • Anonymous

      No – there is no impeachment or recall mechanism:

      • Anonymous

        Couldn’t council itself create an overriding by-law to do just that? Or could the province itself create an overriding law similarly?

        • Anonymous

          Theoretically the province could change the City of Toronto act, but it would be a tremendously uphill battle to convince them to do so.

          • Anonymous

            And really, what’s in it for them? They’ve got enough on their plates without buying into *that* world of pain.

    • Wavy Gravy

      It achieves a hefty severance package (aka gravy/waste)

  • Anonymous

    Contrast Webster’s honesty at council with the work of our self-serving City Manager. If there’s a Ford motion in the works, you can bet that Pennachetti is busy preparing a favourable staff report. Not only did he mercilessly perpetuate the Mayor’s “opening pressure” myth during the 2012 budget cycle, he is the only bureaucrat who had the authority to allow the TPLC to spend up to half a million dollars to produce an alternate Ford-friendly Waterfront plan, going around council in the process.

  • OldMjr

    “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – Orwell

    The precedent set by this potential firing is that civil servants will no longer be free to express opinions and beliefs based on fact and reason. Truthfully, this ongoing saga of City Hall politics is becoming a farce with the exception that it is not light or humorous, but rather serious and with consequence. Toronto’s current situation is truly Orwellian in nature, and Mr. Ford continues to exhibit a case of doublethink in regards to his transit dream.

    To shoot the messenger of logic and fact is an affront against reason, and is an act that will continue to polarize this city.

    Politics and progress should be achieved through dialogue and compromise and not heavy handed tactics.

  • sean
  • Jordan Axani

    I really love this article. The passion shines through. Thank you!