The "Webster Effect" Has a Chilling Effect on Staff and Makes for Worse Council Decisions
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The “Webster Effect” Has a Chilling Effect on Staff and Makes for Worse Council Decisions

When City staff don't feel they have the freedom to offer professional advice without consequences, the process is compromised.

On February 21, 2012, TTC General Manager Gary Webster waits with senior staff to learn his fate. He would be dismissed without cause that afternoon.

On February 21, 2012, TTC General Manager Gary Webster waits with senior staff to learn his fate. He would be dismissed without cause that afternoon.

“Excellence in bureaucracy isn’t defined like excellence in private enterprise. Excellence in a bureaucracy is the ability to put forth the positions that are consistent with those adopted by the mayor.”

TTC Commissioner Councillor Frank Di Giorgio, attempting to justify his vote to fire TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster “without cause,” February 21, 2012.

Last week, Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack got a step closer to reality. In an ideal world, a TTC or city planner would have long ago stood up and declared SmartTrack an unnecessary multi-billion dollar election promise best abandoned. Perhaps they could have paraphrased what Gary Webster advised Toronto City Council in 2012: “We don’t recommend spending money you don’t have on an asset you don’t need.” Alas, such courage is lost in part because of the climate Frank Di Giorgio helped cultivate.

It’s called the “Webster Effect.” Coined by Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East), it is the reluctance of City of Toronto experts—planners, executives, bureaucrats—to give frank and fearless advice out of fear of limiting career advancement or losing their jobs, as Gary Webster so famously and publicly did. With City staff now seeming to have become more political than professional, it’s worth recalling how the Webster Effect came to be.

My role from the end of 2010 to early 2014 was to advise and assist the chair of the TTC. Any self-described city builder would have loved the job, even with its frustrations. By early 2012, we had arrived at the most politically tumultuous time in the history of amalgamated Toronto. Mayor Rob Ford intended on killing Transit City—former mayor David Miller’s provincially-funded plan to add LRT transit lines across the city. Ford’s team (which included current John Tory advisor Nick Kouvalis) had come up with an unfunded alternative plan consisting of underground subways while the province buried the entire length of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT line primarily intended for at-grade use. After almost a year of delay to gauge the technological and financial feasibility of his plan, Mayor Rob Ford was reluctantly challenged by my boss, TTC chair Karen Stintz. Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) got a legal opinion stating the mayor had no authority to cancel Transit City without Council’s approval. Stintz and Mihevc led the charge to bring the issue to Council in February, 2012, via a historic special meeting.

TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster gave his professional opinion on Mayor Ford’s subway plan at that meeting. Again, “We don’t recommend spending money you don’t have on an asset you don’t need.” Succinct and honest, he said it on the floor of City Council. It embarrassed the mayor and his team. Transit City won the vote, 25-18. Mayor Ford and his allies wanted vengeance.

On February 21, 2012, all nine TTC commissioners—all councillors—began a special TTC meeting to discuss “personnel matters.” Some of them intended to fire Mr. Webster for the crime of giving his professional opinion to Council. The names are familiar and their choices are worth recalling. Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre), Peter Milczyn, John Parker and Karen Stintz defended Webster. Vincent Crisanti (Ward 1, Etobicoke North), Frank Di Giorgio, Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport), Norm Kelly (Ward 40, Scarborough-Agincourt) (yes, @norm!), and their leader, Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), wanted Webster terminated two years early, immediately, regardless of of the well-over $500,000 cost and the destabilizing message it sent to the 90-year-old TTC as an organization. Unlike most other private in-camera TTC meetings, this was one where I was asked to not remain in the room. Instead, I was tasked with holding the team together in my office.

In my office boardroom were Webster and some of his senior TTC staff, including newly hired protege Andy Byford, Chris Upfold, Dave Dixon, and Brad Ross, the director of communications who was in and out a lot that day. Chief of Staff Andrew Bodrug remained in the board meeting but also came in and out of our office. John Parker and Karen Stintz kept me updated via BBM messages, as I did them. They told me there was a lot of anger and shouting in that conference room.

Going into the meeting, Webster—a devout man—was obviously worried and expected the worst, but he was at relative peace surrounded by colleagues who truly liked him. About two-and-a-half hours in, from the messages coming into my Blackberry, it seemed that maybe Gary’s job was safe (I didn’t share that hope). Webster certainly started thinking that. That photo above of the group in my office was taken for Parker and Stintz, sent to show the mood in my office. I clearly recall a few nervous chuckles and a sense of relief settling in. Our collective guard was down when at around 2:15 p.m., about three hours after the meeting started, I got the BBM message saying Gary Webster had been fired after more than 35 years of honourable service to the city. I told Gary the bad news, and will never forget the gasping whimper he made. There were hugs at the table. I said “sorry,” left, and waited just outside to give them some privacy. Brad, Karen, and others came to script how to address the press together with now-former chief general manager. They then all left to face the cameras. Andy Byford remained with me, and we made small talk through the shock and anger.

Byford, only recently arrived in Toronto, became a friend of mine due to our mutual love of soccer and shared world travels. He was new here, but people quickly came to like him around City Hall and at TTC headquarters. Andy had been chosen by Webster and Stintz to be next in line once Webster retired (by 2014). A stable, orderly transfer of power was the plan, now scuttled.

Almost immediately, Karen came to Bodrug and me and told us a message had to be sent back to the mayor’s side, to show that Council—not the mayor—reigned supreme. She would get Council to fire the TTC Board in order to reconstitute it without the five who fired Gary Webster. It would also kickstart the addition of private citizens to the board. The risk was that Bodrug and I would lose our jobs if she lost a vote to remain chair. We agreed as a matter of principle; but I feared losing my job, and Bodrug would have been left with a much- diminished role.

The TTC board was reconstituted. The four who voted to save Webster stayed on; the five who fired Gary were in turn fired from the board. Joining Augimeri, Milczyn, Parker and Stintz were Raymond Cho, Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence) and Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre). From that moment, Mayor Ford lost not only the TTC Board but also City Council.

Former ombudsman Fiona Crean, mere weeks before Webster was fired, talked to Council about bringing legal safeguards to protect civil servants, to allow them to give professional opinions without fear of losing their jobs. That was 2012. In 2014, Council passed a by-law which was supposed to do just that. However, on its face, it does not protect those who want to do what Gary Webster did—express an honest professional opinion. An elected official can still get away with coercively influencing the opinion of a city employee.

Which brings us to the John Tory era.

SmartTrack is an exercise in fitting facts to conclusions, to fulfil Mayor Tory’s ill-considered election promise. Generally speaking, if a leader says, “I think this is our general direction. Go and research the hell out of it and we’ll make decisions based on those facts,” that is proper decision making. But if a leader says, “This is what we’re doing. Go and find me facts that support it,” that is an abuse of power. If an unchangeable conclusion precedes identifying the underlying facts, it’s not scientific, it’s not democratic, and it’s not intellectually defensible.

Honourable people can debate conclusions in good faith—but only if they have all the facts in front of them. The Webster Effect happens when City employees are frightened into withholding or even distorting pertinent information, thereby eliminating the possibility of free and informed debate. Whether Gardiner East, the Scarborough Subway, SmartTrack, or even Rail Deck Park, many decisions which on their face seem questionable are being supported by City staff in ways which might suggest political coercion or at least an absence of proper vetting.

Jean-Pierre Boutros was the senior advisor to the TTC chair from 2010 to 2014. He ran for Council in Ward 16 in 2014, and can be found on Twitter.

CORRECTION: 1:41 PM A typo introduced in editing had one instance of the February 21, 2012 meeting as 2016. We regret the error, which has been fixed.