City subway debate missing vital information
Toward the end of a long and often angry debate at city council on Wednesday, one that meandered around the well-trod paths of the years-long Scarborough subway extension question, Councillor Josh Colle joked that for convenience sake, the topic should just be added as a standing item to the council agenda every month.
The punchline, of course, was that the next contentious Scarborough subway debate was expected to happen only 24 hours later during the same meeting — and after being postponed due to a long meeting, will actually happen next month. No joke. Reality.
Our municipal governing body is not at its best when debating this topic. Councillors had a hard time staying on topic. They refought old battles and hauled out old personal grudges. Insinuations were made, apologies were demanded. The speaker of council hurled an insult that she stubbornly refused to withdraw, until the end of the day when she apologized.
And at the end of all that, on Wednesday’s item, there was a unanimous vote. This is how our city council behaves when they agree on the specific item at hand.
The specific item on Wednesday was the auditor general’s report on her investigation of a briefing note that played a major role an earlier city council debate about the Scarborough subway, back in July 2016.
It’s a complicated story, as are all such things, but in a nutshell: the briefing note, prepared by TTC staff, seemed to show that the previously abandoned plan to build an LRT line instead of a subway extension would — if the city went back to it — cost roughly as much and take about as long to build as the subway extension would.
Given its use and pivotal role in the debate, and the questionable information in it, a citizen’s group asked for an investigation into the note.
And the auditor did investigate to see if the note represented an intentional attempt to mislead city council by TTC CEO Andy Byford or other city staff, and whether the note was produced in response to political pressure.
On those specific questions, the auditor found no wrongdoing. Her report clearly finds no intentional attempt to mislead, and that the note was not produced in response to requests from politicians.
It was those conclusions, and a recommendation about developing a policy on future briefing notes, that all councillors present voted to accept.
Here’s the thing: the auditor found the note was not produced with the intention to mislead council. But that’s not the same as finding that the note was not misleading. The note was, in fact, misleading.
The auditor specifically pointed out some places where the note contained information that turned out to be incorrect — specifically the claim that the start of construction of an LRT would need to be delayed until after 2021was untrue. And as a result, the cost of the LRT was overstated in the note by at least $250 million.
The Star has previously reported other misleading aspects of the note, including claims not investigated by the auditor.
Now, most of us, if we make a really big decision based on information that turned out to be wrong — even if that information was given to us by people who believed it to be true and were acting with good intentions — might revisit the decision when we learn more accurate information. Not city council. Which is no surprise. A good number of politicians — a majority of city council — want to build a subway extension.
They do not care how it compares to the alternatives, they do not care if it serves the people who will use it well, and they do not care what it will cost.
They did waver in their conviction when the projected price nearly doubled from initial estimates, and they did not waver when the number of stops went from three to one.
By necessity, the final decision on whether to proceed with the subway will come to city council late next year, when 30 per cent of the design work is done.
If council wanted to ensure that when that time comes, they have the best information possible about their alternatives, they could decide to commission a direct, detailed comparison of the LRT option and the subway option — something they have shockingly never had in front of them in all this time. That is, not coincidentally, the subject of the next anticipated edition of the debate postponed until next month’s meeting, a motion from Councillor Josh Matlow that proposes a valuefor-money audit of the two plans by the city auditor.
But council voted in 2016 not to gather any more information on the LRT for comparison purposes. They voted not to do a value-for-money comparison between the two proposals in March of this year. The audit committee voted in October not to have the auditor perform Matlow’s requested comparison. And council will almost certainly vote next month to again to deny Matlow’s request for detailed information.
The majority of this city council, including its mayor, does not want that information.
They have repeatedly demonstrated they do not care about that information.
The only way that will change is if voters decide during next year’s election that they do care about information, and care enough to change the composition of council.
The rest is just shouting. But boy, oh boy, there sure is a lot of that. Edward Keenan writes on city issues email@example.com. Follow: @thekeenanwire
The auditor general found no wrongdoing in a subway briefing note by Andy Byford and staff.