I went out this morning to the new Anvil Centre in New Westminster. The Mayors’ Council held a public meeting to approve the referendum question which is based on a proposed 0.5% addition to Provincial Sales Tax levied in Greater Vancouver. The link takes you to all the material discussed at that meeting and for a very good summary, as well as copies of the distributed materials I recommend Jeff Nagel’s report in the Surrey Leader.
Only three of the Mayors dissented but then they can do that safe in the knowledge that the referendum process will proceed, and if the question passes their communities will still benefit. So they get to do a bit of grandstanding. Mayor Corrigan of Burnaby boasted about how much more he knew about transit than anyone else having been in charge of BC Transit at the end of the nineties – when it won awards as best transit system. You may recall that was the contest where BC Transit nominated itself and there was no other system nominated. You may also recall his discomfiture at the revelation that he himself did not actually use the system but was happy to drive himself around in a leased Saab paid for by the system. West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith seemed most offended by Translink’s decision to set aside $4.5m to “lobby on the referendum”. “Are they a transportation company or a political lobby group?” he asked rhetorically. Of course since the referendum is about Translink it would be even stranger if they made no attempt at all to communicate with the people who are being asked to vote on a tax increase. And even then he had to admit that the problems really lie with the governance of Translink, which has to report to the province, the professional board, the Mayors’ Council and the transit commissioner. “No one is really accountable” he said. Translink is “high cost model” and the “strong winds of private sector should blow through the organisation.” He was most upset about the free passes given to staff, their families and pensioners. He claimed that no private sector company gives discounts to their staff. (Really? Doesn’t he know anyone who works for an airline? Does he know what the marginal cost of an empty seat on a bus is?) I was surprised he did not mention the “gourmet coffee”.
I found a bit more sympathy with the new Mayor of Maple Ridge who opposed the motion on the basis that the Mayors will have no say at all on how the money is going to be spent. Actually, if you look at the question itself you will see the other Mayors had this covered by insisting on independent audits. Lois Jackson managed to work in a sly dig at the amount of work the new Mayors must have had to do to get up to speed on the proposal. She was all in favour of it, the combined Mayors of South of the Fraser having got all they wanted into the proposals. 20% of the population currently lives within walking distance of the Frequent Transit Network. Once this plan is implemented that will increase to 53%, she said. The figures for distance to jobs are even better: from 31% now to 67%. (All these figures are direct quotes from her second speech which came just before the vote).
Ian Black CEO of the Board of Trade spoke to the Mayors before their debate started on behalf of the new coalition which has been formed to promote the Yes side of the campaign. His case seems to be that people will vote for better transit if you add the words “transportation” and talk about how congestion increases business costs.
As usual Translink came in for a lot of criticism about its lack of accountability (as though that were their fault) and their apparent reckless spending. No one mentioned the many audits, consultants reports and comparative studies that have been done over the last few years most of which came from independent sources, usually highly paid accountants, all of which found that Translink performs as least as well and in some cases much better than transit systems of similar size across North America. If this referendum does turn into a Translink popularity contest then I hope at least some of the money set aside for communications goes into wider distribution and publicisation of those studies. Not least from the province, who created the current professional board – well represented at today’s meeting, none of whom said a word – mainly due to the dismissal of the municipal representatives’ apparent inability to control spending.
I have pages of notes from the meeting but no time to transcribe them now, due to other commitments. But I will be looking out for other links in the media and blogosphere – Nathan Pachel was sitting near me as was Eric Doherty. Was there any live tweeting going on at the time?