Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Advocates: Leadership at City Council

On this inaugural edition of The Advocates, we are joined by the Ottawa Citizen's David Reevely and local transit activist Kalus Beltzner. Our question to them:

As transit service resumes, who on city council is the leading voice on public transit issues? Is there a leader?

Klaus Beltzer:
A definition of "leadership" comes from Alan Keith of Genentech, who said: "Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen." (SOURCE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leadership)

Based on that definition - the answer to your question is a resounding "NO ONE NOW", but there may be one who could in time.....

Let's look at the candidates:

1. Larry O'Brien - Mayor

Larry has consistently demonstrates a keen ability to over-promise and under-deliver, be divisive rather than bringing people together, spinning truth into fiction and being inclusive only when it comes to antagonizing most everyone, whether it be Council, Staff, the Province, the Feds, or the very people who voted him into office.

Larry claims to have "hit the reset" button on transit and has what exactly to show for it?
  • Lawsuits by those who had a signed contract with the City to build the NS LRT
  • A Transit Master Plan that was so well managed through the process that no comma changed despite hundreds of thousands of hours of input and advice from the public and transit advocates and experts; and, that resulted in a plan that provides no evidence of generating increased ridership, improved service reliability and ridership experience, reduced trip times, more transit destinations or improved operating efficiencies.
  • A "shovel-ready" list of transit projects submitted to the federal infrastructure program that amounts to an embarrassing $200 million when compared to Brampton's$1.7 billion list, Calgary's $2.0 billion list, Edmonton's $2.2 billion list, and Toronto's $2.5 billion list of transit projects.
  • A "we will wait them out" strategy to the City's disastrous transit strike that cost residents and business over $500 million and for what gain? Larry's leadership on that file was characterized by spinning truth into fiction, threatening the union and his own staff and repeatedly asking the federal government to get him out of his self-created mess.
2. Alex Cullen - Chair of Council's Transit Committee

Alex's first words to me after the last election were: " We will not see LRT for another 20- 30 years in Ottawa because we have no Transit leadership". And when I said that I thought (naively) he was suppose to provide that leadership, he replied " There is no political will to do anything on that file for the next 30 years because of the failed NS LRT project."

And, true to his word, he and Nancy Schepers have worked hard since day 1 to impose delays through an application of a tedious and torturous planning process that ensures Alex's preferred outcome of nothing happening for 20-30 years. Validation of this comes in the form of "controversy" over the western leg (parkway, Byron, Carling), the Hospital bypass corridor to allow continued bus operation while the eastern transitway is converted, the $185 million "transfer" station at Baseline, the $2 billion in new bus purchases in advance of LRT and validation on the expected start date via "official" statements for an operational Step 1 Phase 1 LRT line between Blair and Tunney's.

3. Clive Doucet - Member, Transit Committee

Clive has worked hard to move his vision for LRT forward, but has met stiff and hostile opposition from Staff and Council. With a very public recent exception, Clive mostly stands alone.

Clive was recently joined by Christine to work together and present their alternate transit master plan to the public for which they were soundly criticized by Staff and their valiant and professional efforts totally ignored by fellow Councillors.

4. Christine Leadman - Member, Transit Committee

Christine shows promise and is capable of bringing a "public good" vision to the transit file. She is handicapped by being a novice when it comes to leadership skills needed for the political game playing that goes on at Council.

There are no other candidates to consider; all other Councillors on the Transit Committee are primarily there to uphold their ward interests when it comes to transit (and transportation).

I wish I saw anything to make me more optimistic.
David Reevely:
I don't think there is -- certainly I don't think there's anybody on council who public transit users see as speaking for them anymore. The whole group was willing to stand by while the system was shut down for nearly two months, over a relatively small amount of money. Along the way, I think a lot of observers were left with the idea that councillors didn't even understand why OC Transpo's work-scheduling system works the way it does, meaning that they were willing to hurt riders very badly without even knowing what they were fighting over.

Only Clive Doucet broke with the party line in public. They had knock-down fights behind closed doors, of course but when the doors opened again, even Doucet was cowed. He did salvage something for himself, though. If you're a transit person, Doucet's always been a go-to guy for you, but now he's even more evidently the councillor who's willing to get in some trouble for the cause.

Unfortunately, breaking with council's solidarity at a tense time probably WON'T help him get things done at the level that matters most.

Mayor O'Brien, I think, lost quite a bit of credibility. I don't think most transit users and advocates saw in him a natural ally when he was first elected, particularly when one of his first acts was killing Bob Chiarelli's light-rail plan. Then a lot of people began to see him differently after he oversaw the creation of a bigger, longer-term plan -- without rehashing the debate over whether the current version does everything it could or ought to, there's no denying it's much more ambitious than the previous one. But then he took the lead on the file during the strike, being council's leader and only permitted spokesman, and that means he has to wear the results: a long and painful strike that didn't even lead to his side's getting what it wanted.

Alex Cullen suffers, too. He's generally been seen as a transit guy, but during the strike he was in the awkward position of chairing council's transit committee, meaning he was the alternative spokesman for the management side and shares some of the blame for how it all turned out. I suspect what he was hoping for was to gain some credibility for fiscal rectitude -- that's something Alex Munter had among those who paid attention, while still definitely being on council's left wing -- but because of the way it all turned out, I don't think that's how his role will be remembered.
Readers: What do you think? Who is leading council on transit issues?


Anonymous said...

I wonder if the advocates aren't looking at this backwards. We have leaders on the transit file - unfortunately they are leading by ensuring that nothing happens and Ottawa builds more roads and more suburbs.

If we had a pro-tanit leader, then the City would not even think of adding land for development outside the greenbelt. Unfortunately the real leaders on council are those pushing for suburban development.

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone on council want to provide leadership on this file? Who wants to be associated with a strike, lawsuit and NS LRT cancellation. Further, who would this leader have as a supporter other than Mr Doucet? Frankly, this term of council has done more to set transit back than anyone I have seen for ages. Even with all of the potential projects (such as Montreal Road and Baseline corridors, O-Train to Leitrim) that are at least somewhat on the books, how much money was requested from federal funds? And most of that was for roads!

Let's hope that no one from this council tries to be a leader. Then, we'll pray for a real leader on the next council.