Friday, 24 February 2012

In moderate defence of Gary Webster

In recent days a number of Toronto city councillors have jumped to the defence of Gary Webster, the embattled general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). His contract was terminated at an emergency meeting of the TTC to discuss a “personnel matter” yesterday afternoon.

Webster has found himself in some trouble, due in large part to his difference of opinion with the Mayor regarding the future of Toronto’s transit system. Mayor Ford continues to be adamant in his belief that subways are the only possible solution to Toronto’s transit woes, whereas Webster is sticking to his guns in defending previous Mayor David Miller’s Transit City plan.

This debate has become largely polarized, with Council’s left and centre standing behind Webster and the right opposing his continued tenure. I’m going to take a different approach. There are reasons to let Webster go. He has hardly done a spectacular job. The TTC often runs late, experiences breaks in service, and has failed to be a model of municipal transportation in approximately two decades. Given numerous project cost overruns and an inability to demonstrate that he can work with those of differing political opinions, Webster probably should have been let go a year ago. The problem, however; lies in why Mayor Ford and his allies at the TTC may have chosen to dismiss Webster at this time. This appears to have been an act of vengeance on the part of the Mayor and his inner circle following the loss of a major vote at Council that resurrected aspects of Transit City. Councillor Stintz’ leadership on that vote has garnered a great deal of public support. It would not be in the Mayor’s best political interest to force her out of her current role as Chair of the TTC. But Webster was not a public figure. Career civil servants usually fly under the radar. It is doubtful Webster’s dismissal will create the kind of ripples that the Mayor will have to answer for come 2014. It’s not the firing of Webster that I take issue with. It’s why it is occurring at this exact time that I have a problem with.

Mayor Ford has made a number of enemies since declaring his candidacy for Mayor of Toronto. He and his brother, Councillor Doug Ford, appear to be using this event to strike a unilateral blow against the left. Where Webster has failed as a general manager, the Mayor has allowed his position to be compromised by his polarizing political activity. Councillor John Parker, the Deputy Speaker of City Council and former Progressive Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament, announced via Twitter, “This amounts to wrongful dismissal.” (I have paraphrased this because the comment has since been deleted.)

This causes me concern. For many years Councillor Rob Ford railed against Mayor David Miller’s polarizing agenda. To date Mayor Rob Ford has managed to expand upon that. While there are a small handful of Councillors that make up the ‘mighty middle,’ the vast majority have been forced to choose sides. It is an unfortunate reminder of what happens when the electorate selects politicians on the fringe of politics. We live in a city which is stuck at a standstill. We are left in state of permanent debate where the only instances in which anything can be achieved comes from broad coalitions being created from within Council, such as what Councillor Stintz was able to achieve in proposing her plan for the future of Toronto's rapid transit – a plan for which Webster was one of the key architects.

What Council is neglecting to realize is that the expansion of Toronto’s transit system; particularly the subway system, should not be and cannot be a partisan political issue. Jack Layton, the late leader of Canada's New Democratic Party, was one of Toronto's earliest proponents of subways in this city. Subways are not a right wing issue. The problem with the Mayor`s vision lies in his lack of plan for financing such an expansion. A deputant at yesterday's meeting referred to this as having "champagne tastes on a beer budget." Some may recall Sarah Thomson, a former candidate for Mayor and publisher of this magazine, promoted a fully financed plan to expand our subway system during her 2010 campaign. Perhaps it is time for the Mayor to take a peek at the aforementioned plan and see what he can take away from it.

[Originally posted at]

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