City sub­way de­bate miss­ing vi­tal in­for­ma­tion

Toronto Star - - NEWS - Ed­ward Keenan

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 ekeenan@thes­tar.ca. Fol­low: @the­keenan­wire

NAKITA KRUCKER/TORONTO STAR

The au­di­tor gen­eral found no wrong­do­ing in a sub­way brief­ing note by Andy Byford and staff.

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