Democracy Gone Astray

Democracy, being a human construct, needs to be thought of as directionality rather than an object. As such, to understand it requires not so much a description of existing structures and/or other related phenomena but a declaration of intentionality.
This blog aims at creating labeled lists of published infringements of such intentionality, of points in time where democracy strays from its intended directionality. In addition to outright infringements, this blog also collects important contemporary information and/or discussions that impact our socio-political landscape.

All the posts here were published in the electronic media – main-stream as well as fringe, and maintain links to the original texts.

[NOTE: Due to changes I haven't caught on time in the blogging software, all of the 'Original Article' links were nullified between September 11, 2012 and December 11, 2012. My apologies.]

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Taxpayer-funded transit report kept secret by city

A $100,000 consultant’s report meant to help determine whether transit projects worth billions of dollars are cost-effective has been kept secret by the city.

In June, the city paid the firm, Arup, which consults on transportation projects worldwide, to provide business case analyses for several projects planned by the city, including Mayor John Tory’s original “SmartTrack” idea for additional stops along the GO Transit rail line travelling through Toronto, and the controversial one-stop Scarborough subway extension.

The report produced by Arup, however, was never publicly released as part of a city staff report to executive committee in June, which was then debated at a July council meeting.

The missing consultant information adds to a series of questions over future transit plans that include delayed reports and a secret briefing note on the Scarborough subway extension that has been called a “political football,” and still-incomplete analysis of the mayor’s key campaign promise for an additional heavy rail service that is moving ahead, while heavily modified.

The city staff report contained several “initial” business cases on those and other projects that referenced work done by the consultants, though it was not clear what they had contributed.

When the Star first asked in October about the work Arup had done and whether a report was submitted, a city spokesperson sent a list of where information from the consultants could be found in the city report.

The Star obtained the consultant’s work and related emails through a freedom of information request that took more than three months to process.

“The city takes a transparent and forthcoming approach” to access to information requests, wrote a city spokesperson, Wynna Brown, adding it “strives to release as much information as is consistent with the values of the organization and within the constraints of the legislation.”

She said the city rejected the “premise” of this story because the report was eventually released through a freedom of information request.

“I’m disappointed and angry that not only do Torontonians not see the studies they pay for, (but) I as their elected representative haven’t even seen these studies. I don’t know if anything untoward happened there, but the fact that I don’t know is itself a problem,” said Councillor Gord Perks, who was shown the consultant’s work by the Star.

The Star has published the consultant’s work, paid for by taxpayers, for the first time.

As part of the Star’s request, the city released more than 1,000 pages of draft reports and emails between city staff and the consultants.

But almost all of the information in the draft reports is censored as are portions of several emails that appear to be explanations of the consultant’s work.

For example, city staff asked the consultants for additional information to help interpret the results of the business case for the one-stop Scarborough subway. A later email in which the consultant provided an explanation was censored.

The city claimed that most of the censored sections of the Star’s request are covered under exemptions for “advice and recommendations” to government under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which governs how government-held information is disclosed to the public.

That section of the act says a government can refuse to disclose advice or recommendations from an employee or a hired consultant — except in some circumstances, including if the records contain “factual material.”

It’s impossible for the Star to know exactly what was censored. However, the city appears to have missed some duplicate sections it intended to censor, which gives some indication of the type of information that was blacked out.

For example, at one point, the consultant emailed city staff to say “the results for Eglinton East ‘Full LRT’ look a little bit odd; essentially it makes things worse.” That line was blacked out, but uncensored in a duplicate email.

It’s unclear why the city wanted to censor that information.

When asked why that type of information was redacted, the city spokesperson wrote only that the censored information “contained informed decisions regarding changes to methodology for the project. Accordingly, this information was not disclosed.”

The Star has appealed the city’s partial release of records to the information and privacy commissioner of Ontario.

Some of the consultant’s work was included in the city staff report while other portions were left out, including a business case for the proposed Eglinton East light-rail line from Kennedy station to the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. The consultant’s business case for various SmartTrack options was also not included in the city staff reports.

Brown said in an email that Arup only provided “preliminary analysis” for SmartTrack to help understand some of the “sensitivities” of the modelling, and the city instead published an analysis from the province’s transit agency, Metrolinx.

She said the Eglinton East LRT had the least amount of “due diligence work undertaken” and was left out because of time constraints.

Council voted to move ahead with planning for all those projects.

Councillor Josh Matlow, who recently made an unsuccessful attempt in council to require that his colleagues assess transit priorities based on factual evidence, wrote to the Star: “Torontonians have a right to see information they paid for that impacts billions of dollars in transit projects.

“Residents should be deeply concerned if a decision at council affecting the future of transit planning in our city was made without basic, relevant information.”

This is not the first time consultant information regarding transit projects has not been made available.

The city is considering a plan to pay, in part, for Tory’s SmartTrack plan — now heavily modified to include just six additional GO train stations — using what’s called tax increment financing, or TIF. Experts have outlined this as a risky shell game to backstop infrastructure projects that could leave taxpayers on the hook. This type of financing essentially involves borrowing against future development to pay for transit now.

Though council considered and approved the plan in principle, analysis informing how TIF was calculated for SmartTrack has not been made public, despite repeated requests from the Star. The Star has also made a freedom of information request in this case.

“Anyone who went to high school will remember that if you didn’t show your work, your math teacher would fail you,” Perks said. “We have yet for John Tory to show his work on SmartTrack.”

When asked whether the consultant’s work should be made available, Tory told the Star he had seen nothing more than what has been made public, but thought that work should be published.

“I’ve seen no maps, no charts, no projections, and so if you said to me, when and if that background work is available so people can see it and so it can be assessed, would I be in favour of that at some stage being made public? I would say yes,” Tory said. “I’m certainly in favour, as soon as possible and as soon as practical and as soon as the commercial sensitivities permit that information be made public. I’m not afraid of it.”

Original Article
Author:  Jennifer Pagliaro

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