Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is council micro-managing public transit in Ottawa?

According to the Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa city councillors have taken issue with the decision of OC Transpo management that the Atheist Bus Campaign's advertisement was rejected (more about that here), and have decided to have a full debate on the decision in city council. The city's transit committee voted on the issue, but because the vote was a tie Bay Ward Councillor Alex Cullen vowed that he would bring the issue to full council vote next week.

Although the Atheist Bus Campaign is a controversial issue on its own, the decision by some councillors, including Cullen, to debate an issue of the day-to-day management of OC Transpo brings to mind a grander discussion of whether or not Ottawa city councillors are micro-managing the city's transit utility, OC Transpo.

Past decisions have also arguably bordered around micro-management from council. When dealing with transit plans, budget cuts, and virtually any decision made with regards to OC Transpo, councillors have seemingly debated everything from grander visions to the most minute details of implementation of the plan. This degree of political involvement does not only politicize the decisions made, but it also serves to frustrate citizens--myself included--trying to keep up-to-date on all the technical issues being debated by council, a phenomenon that's been referred to as 'transit fatigue'. While it's valuable for our elected officials to have input in the direction of OC Transpo, how much is too much involvement?

So I pose a few discussion questions to readers:

  1. Do you think councillors are micromanaging OC Transpo?
  2. How much council involvement is too much in OC Transpo?
  3. Could council's time be better spent dealing with larger issues, and leaving technicalities to OC Transpo staff?
  4. Would establishing an arm's-length transit commission solve this problem, if you do think it's a problem?

Please feel free to answer any or all of the questions in the 'comments' section.


Anonymous said...

OC Transpo should definitely operate as a separate Transit Commission, that is arm's length reach to City Council.

City Councillors have made decisions in the past that negatively affected transit users (remember the service cuts in 2004?).

Fortunately, there will be a mid-term governance review in the coming months. At that point, there will be another discussion on whether OC should operate as a Transit Commission.

Anonymous said...

Councillors need to step back and stop micromanaging everything. It is neither necessary nor constructive to debate the atheist ad issue at City Hall, especially when there are so many bigger fish to fry with regards to our transit system! There's no point in having so much city staff and OC Transpo staff if Council is going to get involved in every tiny issue. Trust that you've hired the right people and that they're doing their job! Or don't trust that you have the right people and raise the issue of hiring practices at a Council meeting instead!

I don't see why we should pay our councillors and mayor exorbitant salaries if they are just going to do the job of a City of Ottawa middle manager.

Dwight Williams said...

I am starting to think - again - that perhaps restoring the old commission setup might not be a bad idea. I'd want to be careful of who got hired to run it on that basis for fear of losing my ability to leave and return to my 'burb at hours not related to day-job commuting needs(evenings, weekends, etc.) as I still have those friends and clubs scattered across the rest of town that I want to visit without having to own a car...

Anonymous said...

Dwight brings up a real concern. In the rush to move to a separate commission we may wind up with something worse. Just imagine OCtranspo run like the NCC.

Anonymous said...

re 1: Yes, but that is because residents cannot complain to OC Transpo management to get their issues resolved, they have to complain to their ward councillor

re 2: It can never be too much since that is OC Transpo's board of directors accountable to both the ratepayers and transit users

re 3: No, because Staff have not demonstrated competence

re 4: A transit commission would solve many aspects of this problem - especially the fragmentation of responsibility for OC Transpo. Currently, responsibility for planning routes, determining the route schedules rests with the City's planning department (Nancy Schepers), while operations rests with Alain Mercier. Financial services etc. are provided by other city departments.

Anonymous said...

I would not say that council is micro-manageing OC-Transpo. I would say they are mis-managing. They are not consistently holding staff to account for their actions: sometimes staff gets raked over the coals (often for doing things that make sense to me), and completely ignore staff actions (or inaction) when it suits them.

I think the atheist ad is a denial of service attack on council. It's known as a "bike shed" (google it, look it up on wikipedia) --- the tunnel consultation process is starting, and the staff proposal is nonsense. Keep council tied up debating whether or not god exists instead.

Staff are competent -- just not at designing transit systems. Their expertise is in building themselves good jobs to go to after they work for the city.

Council, due to it's mis-management, is blind to this.

I would have to know more about how a transit comission to be created to know if it would help. I think it wouldn't matter, unless the commission was started with entirely new staff.

Anonymous said...

1. Yes.
2. Council should be setting the long-term, big-picture goals and priorities for our transit system, approving the budget, and evaluating over-all performance. Otherwise they should get their noses out of operations.
3. See above.
4. YES! Most major transit systems (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, New York, San Francisco...even the STO in Gatineau for heaven's sake) are governed in this manner. What makes Ottawa the exception??? Until we fix the governance/management problem at OC Transpo, we're just going to keep going in circles, much like some OC's ridiculously-planned routes.