Barber's Blazing Beretta
AKA ‘Public Service’ — easier said than done part 3
It was strange as interviews go. Which are themselves strange; which made this one doubly odd I suppose.
I get this call from someone saying it’s “John Barber”. I’m thinking, do I know you? I know I can be forgetful, but…. Some people must think they need no introduction, and the fellow on the other end of the telephone might be one of those people.
Aaahhh. John Barber of the “I hate the Toronto Island Airport” and anyone who uses it infamy. The guy from the DTM who probably writes 25 critical columns for every one that he decides that he something positive to say about – oh – anything. That guy. Game time, I realize. He’s calling to check in on that is going on at the Toronto Port Authority. It’s been a few weeks since Mr. Barber has tiptoed around the defamation laws on that topic, and his Beretta is ready to blaze once again.
For reasons that are no longer justifiable, I agreed to go on this federal Board in 2007. “Bring a business mind to the place” I was told. “Bring a flak jacket” would have more appropriate advice.
Little did I know that the TPA invoked feelings that approach the level of a “religious war” in a few hundred people. Including some folks at City Hall and the Globe and Mail’s City Hall bureau. I thought that public service was a good thing; and that by giving my annual fees to local charities, this would meet the test of being a civic volunteer. Not with everyone it seems.
Barber’s interview style is interesting. Since he writes columns for a living, it might be that he doesn’t get much practice in the art of interviewing. He puts a proposition to you, and then asks for a confirmation. More than once you’re wondering “is that a question or a statement”? Asking him that question directly only generates sputtering on his end, so I deep-sixed that approach with haste.
I felt a bit badly at times. He seemed so downright cross that he had a hard time forming logical questions. Or that might be just me operating on 3 and a half hours of sleep. The themes were along these lines:
“Can the public attend board meetings?”. No, I said. I can’t think of very many Board meetings across Canada that are public.
“Can I see the draft board or committee minutes?” Is he thinking of Hansard at Queen’s Park? No, I said. We are a board and the meeting discussions are confidential as required by the entity’s Bylaws.
“Will you release all of the individual expenses charged by TPA management so I can go through them?” I hadn’t previously turned my mind to that question, nor did I have the unliateral power to do it anyway. He asks the question twice more. He must think I’m as dense as they come. If he’s serious, he must know that the TPA is covered by the federal Access to Information Act, right?
“This foreign trip expense, was that Lisa’s trip to the U.K.”? Yes, I politely replied. [Former TPA CEO] Lisa Raitt went to England about a year ago to meet with a variety of insurance underwriters to try to cut the costs of the TPA’s insurance coverage. The effort saved $20,000 a year in premiums, and her entire trip cost less than $3,900. [She flew economy].
“How long did she and her entourage stay?” She, her CFO and another executive were there about three days as I recall. They saved $20,000. That’s what you do in business. Mission accomplished. I didn’t point out the irony of that question in light of the fact that the Globe and Mail takes its employees and their guests on an all-expenses-paid “subscribers-only” five star luxury cruise each year, replete with wine tastings and hot tubs.
“Why is the TPA putting out a press release? I don’t understand what the issue is.” We are tightening some hospitality expense policies [which the release says for itself]. Last March we new Board members removed the former part-time Board Chair’s $50,000 annual salary, and this recent step is part of the process of bringing a business focus to the TPA. We are focused on cost controls, and are dealing with topics as we come across them.
“I understand that at last week’s board meeting you decided not to pursue a review of these expenses…I’m not even sure who told me that. That a review of these expenses is not going forward.” It didn’t come up, I said. Never discussed. Not the policy. Whoever told you that has misled you. The TPA’s auditors are doing a Special Examination this year, as they do every five years, and they’ve been expressly asked to look at the situation and recommend any further controls if they are warranted.
“Aaargghh”, or something like that anyway. And he is off the line to bang out yet another news story about how much better Toronto would be if the Island Airport hadn’t been built 70 years ago. That’s his right, of course. But news articles require balance, too.
If you are ever thinking about getting involved in a public role, or even running for office. Do yourself a favour and read just a smattering of old Barber columns. They are a good proxy of what to expect. Life is short enough without putting yourself up for a weekly public flogging (see prior post “‘Public Service’ — easier said than done part 2” September 15-08).
This 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)
Thanks for posting stuff like this, Mark. The TPA seems to stir some heavy duty emotions, and it’s been a touchstone of media outlets left and right (CBC-G&M-Star) for at least the past few years.
I’m a close follower of this blog and I think you do a great job, but I’ve got to say this article was pretty run of the mill.
City columnists are supposed to be cranky. I don’t think you came off badly in this piece. Your belief that it was a legitimate business trip was included.