“Public Service” — easier said than done
It’s been about a year since I accepted the federal government’s offer to serve as a Director on the Toronto Port Authority. In a weak moment, it seemed like a good outlet to serve the City that I’ve lived in since Grade 5. The Port is a vibrant commercial enterprise, the Waterfront has long since needed a responsible vision, and the Toronto City Centre Airport seemed like an interesting business to have a modest role in. As someone who’d spent more than a few summers on sailboats in Lake Ontario, charging around the LORC weekend races, I don’t doubt that my view of Toronto’s waterside had a romantic hue.
Romance can colour your judgment, I’m told.
A year later, I’m older, wiser, no richer (all of my board fees are donated to local charities), and the constant beneficiary of emails and complaints from a small but well-organized group of TCCA neighbours who are hell-bent on closing down the Airport and putting the fast-growing Porter Airlines out of business.
And then there are the media calls. Imagine this situation. You’re sitting in a meeting about a deal. A woman you’ve never met from the Globe and Mail City Hall Bureau by the name of Jennifer Lewington emails on your RIM, and she needs to speak to you immediately about a TPA topic, although she hasn’t told you what it is.
What do you do? Drop everything? Leave the meeting and call? Where does your duty lie? The business? Your LPs? Your public service?
I’m learning just how thankless this volunteer public service stuff is. In spades.
It turns out that the interview topics for today are far-reaching. Earlier this week, the TPA’s CEO, Lisa Raitt, took an unpaid leave of absence so that she can run for office in Halton. She’s a talented person, and I didn’t want to lose her. But Ottawa beckons, and we as a Nation certainly need more businesswomen in federal politics. Businesswomen who also happen to be soccer Moms are in particularly high demand given the buzz about Alaska Governor Palin right now.
If she wins, Ms. Raitt will be a tireless worker for her constituents. And the fact that she has already travelled to make a national campaign announcement on behalf of the Prime Minister tells you that Halton could have a powerful voice in our nation’s capital, should the Conservatives return to power with her in their midst.
Ms. Raitt asked the TPA Board for permission to take an unpaid leave last week and she received it; it’s on the website. Just as the TPA would do, by contract, for its excellent unionized staff. But, as far as Ms. Lewington is concerned, she has some pointed questions about this stuff.
Q: If Ms. Raitt doesn’t win, hasn’t she politicized the CEO role now? How will she be able to function upon her return to work?
A: There are something like 30 public servants across the country who are running for office in this election. The Public Service Act allows for them to run (even if they might be challenging their own Minister). The CEO of the Fredericton Airport Authority is running for the Liberals, for example, and his Board approved his leave of absence a short while ago. There were plenty of precedents for us to follow. When people go to war, we protect their jobs. The same goes for public office. This is what public bodies and many corporations do; they encourage people to run for Parliament. Without candidates, our system of government would collapse.
Q: Collapse. Hmmm. But aren’t you concerned about her ability to function should she return, given the politicization?
A: No. (The rest of the answer is, of course, that Toronto’s City Council has passed a motion calling on the federal government to hand the TPA over, lock, stock and barrel. Whether Lisa Raitt ran for the NDP or the Conservatives, that motion is staying in place. Who’s kidding who? Moreover, Ms. Raitt runs a business, she isn’t involved in policies that involve anyone on a political level.)
Q: Was the Board vote unanimous?
A: I can’t talk about what happens in our boardroom. It’s against our Code of Conduct. The board approved Ms. Raitt’s unpaid leave. It’s public knowledge.
Q: Hmmmm. What about the Board…when does your term end?
A: I can’t talk about what is discussed in a Boardroom. I get plenty of emails every day from people who have concerns about the TCCA or bird strikes or noise or safety or pollution. Of the top 100 issues on people’s minds according to the emails and calls from the public, these questions just don’t rank. No one cares about this stuff.
Q: That’s neither here nor there.
The line of questioning diverged from there. Half a dozen (at least) covered topics that are confidential to the Boardroom. Whatever the boardroom might be; business, government, hospital, university. The entire time I’m thinking, does this journalist think I’m going to break the TPA’s own written Code about confidentiality? If she knows I won’t, then is she merely putting these questions on the record so as to appear to have brought balance to the piece by virtue of putting questions before me, where the only answer I can give is a proxy for “no comment”?
As I wrote yesterday (see prior post “Hats off to Brent Fullard” September 8-08), you have to hand it to people who are prepared to throw their hats into the political ring. Brent Fullard has a near-impossible battle on his hands against Jim Flaherty in Whitby-Oshawa. Over in Halton, Lisa Raitt is taking on Garth Turner, someone who knows his way around the political arena.
Just think. There’s a federal election going on right now. The big time for any political reporter. Readership is at it’s peak.
Toronto’s highways need major repair, and the time has come for toll roads (see prior post “Bring on the toll roads” September 10-07). Our city’s budget for snow-plowing wasn’t large enough to ensure that my street was cleared during the month of February; I had to call to remind them that we existed. Rapid transit is a huge political football. The merchants of Spadina have hired a private security firm to fill a role that was once the domain of Metro Police (see prior post “Spadina private security the shame of Toronto’s Tall Perfect Mayor” August 20-08). Ontario’s entrepreneurs have watched venture capital investments drop each year for five consecutive years (see prior post “Ontario politicians asked to address deteriorating VC climate part 2” October 26-07).
Our region is facing some incredibly serious issues right now. And Ms. Lewington is calling me to see whether or not a confidential board vote passed unanimously?
I bit my tongue. But, as I said, this volunteer Public Service stuff is easier said than done.
(disclosure – this blog, as always, reflects a personal view and in no way represents the views of the TPA, its Board/Staff or the federal government)