How We Make Decisions, Not Just What's Decided, is an Environmental Issue Too
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How We Make Decisions, Not Just What’s Decided, is an Environmental Issue Too

Traffic on Sheppard Avenue East. Photo by djp3000 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Franz Hartmann is the executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. In a series of posts leading up to the municipal election this fall, he’ll be discussing environmental priorities for the city and assessing the leading candidates’ environmental policies.

The way we make decisions and policies can be as important as the decisions themselves.
One issue that has been largely neglected in the upcoming municipal election is how we make decisions that end up affecting the environment. Consider: if a decision-making process increases the chance of making bad environmental policies, shouldn’t we avoid this process?
Some candidates hoping to become Toronto’s next mayor are promising to change key decision-making processes, which could lead to bad environmental policies. The best example of this is changing how the TTC makes decisions.

Right now, the TTC Commission (essentially the organization’s board of directors) is made up of city councillors. When the TTC is working well, people leave their cars at home, and that means less pollution. When it’s not working well, the opposite happens.
Currently, many candidates claim the TTC isn’t working well, and say that politicians making bad decisions is the key reason why. They claim the solution is appointing experts, not politicians, to run the TTC. At first glance, this seems like a good idea. But a more careful look suggests the exact opposite.
First, it’s important to identify what sort of experts the TTC needs. TTC critics point to the current Commission’s decisions about money, customer service, and transit technology. Obviously, Commissioners need financial, technological, and customer service expertise. But being a TTC Commissioner requires a lot more than just those skills. The TTC moves over 470 million people every year. Doing this properly means understanding public engagement, city planning issues, local economic development, and neighbourhood concerns, along with environmental priorities—which means TTC Commissioners should be experts in these areas as well.
Most importantly, TTC Commissioners need to be experts at balancing all the conflicting interests that inevitably arise when dealing with so many issues at once. For example, how do you balance the need for public input and involvement with the need for quick action? How do you balance the interests of a neighbourhood, which may not want another subway entrance, with the interests of transit users who need it?
It’s a tall order to find an expert who can do this. That’s why we have governments run by people we elect. Through the election process, we ask candidates to tell us what they stand for and why. Once they are elected, we expect them to make their decisions based on the values they presented to the public during the election. We also expect them to make decisions as transparently as possible and to involve the public in that decision-making process. And if we don’t like the decisions they make, we don’t vote for them again. That’s democracy.

Construction on St. Clair Avenue. Photo by Peter Grevstad from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

That’s perhaps the biggest danger in replacing city councillors with experts: we would be eliminating democracy and replacing it with experts who aren’t elected by the public nor accountable to them. And because experts would have never been forced to run an election campaign, the public would have no idea what they stand for or how they would act on issues.
Without TTC Commissioners who are accountable to the public, we have no mechanism to ensure they will make decisions that are good for the public and the environment. Yes, unelected Commissioners might be environmentalists. Or, they may care about buying products or services that help their friends at the expense of the environment. Their decisions could be motivated by the public good and improving the environment, or they could be motivated by personal gain or a host of other factors that hurt the environment. Without public oversight, there is no way to ensure decisions that are good for the environment will be made.
The history of environmental activism in Canada teaches us that good environmental policies always come from public pressure. Take away that public pressure, and bad environmental policy almost always results. Having elected TTC Commissioners in no way guarantees good environmental policy, but it does ensure that the public has the opportunity to pressure politicians to make the right environmental choices. Having unelected TTC Commissioners takes away the only opportunity the public has to fight for good environmental practices.
As voters consider which mayoral candidate has the best environmental platform, it’s important to look beyond what they say about specific environmental issues like transit, climate change, smog, and waste management. We also need to look at how the candidates propose to make decisions about those issues. Those who want to replace democratically elected councillors with appointed private experts are not doing the environment a favour; privatizing decision-making of public bodies is a recipe for future environmental failure. For those who say, “Yes, but the current model isn’t working properly,” remember the famous words of Winston Churchill, paraphrased here: democracy sucks, but every other decision-making process sucks even more.
Get more municipal election coverage from Torontoist here.