“Public Service” — easier said than done part 4
I apologize if you are already as bored of this Globe City Hall Bureau/Porter Airlines/TPA topic as I am, but your comments of yesterday suggested this stuff is of interest to folks.
If you ever, for a moment, think you’d like to run for public office, I’d recommend that you make your way down to the annual meeting of the Toronto Port Authority later this year. This is the cure-all (not that I needed to be cured – five years in Ottawa as a staffer was eye-opening). As a case study of how some issues can inflame a group of people, the TPA AGM is a perfect window on the inherent challenge that comes when you decide to try your hand at serving the public (see prior posts “‘Public Service’ — easier said than done” September 9-08 and “Barber’s Blazing Beretta” January 28-09).
Following yesterday’s Globe and Mail City Hall Bureau news story cum attack about economy-flight $3,900 foreign travel expenses of the Hon. Lisa Raitt, a former TPA exec (see prior post “Barber’s Blazing Beretta“), I got a bunch of calls and emails from another Globe writer by the name of Jeff Gray. Fortunately, Mr. Gray waited until I was back from a 730am fundraising committee meeting for one of Toronto’s Hospitals. (The meeting was about our fundraising progress towards the construction of a new multi-million dollar wing and buying the necessary equipment.) As attitudes go, Mr. Gray seemed to have none of the bombast and sputtering anger that Beretta Barber suffered from in our Wednesday interview; so that was a bit of a silver lining.
Mr. Gray had been put onto the story by an editor it appeared, which tells you there wasn’t enough going on at City Hall yesterday, despite the hundreds of billions of new budget dollars that are going into municipal infrastructure and community housing. No news there! Let’s do a second piece on that former TPA manager’s trip to the UK to successfully negotiate a better insurance deal. Oh the sweet scent of certain Scandal!
As a student of the media, I was a bit dumbfounded. There are two days of news in this? I asked the journalist why the Globe City Hall Bureau hadn’t yet done a story about the federal panel’s decision regarding the City of Toronto’s claim that the TPA owed them $37 million. The panel ruled recently that the TPA’s PILTs bill was ~$5 million, and the news was out 9 days ago; the Toronto Star had done a story on the news, but not the Globe City Hall Bureau. Which was inconsistent with their earlier multi-year interest.
In 2005, for example, the Globe City Hall Bureau found real estate to cover the PILTs dispute (“Funds from bridge settlement could cover back taxes, city says“).
And again in the summer of 2008 (“Toronto port authority CEO predicts first profit in 10-year history“).
Now that the federal panel has released their analysis on this “tax issue”, there’s inexplicably no coverage by the Globe City Hall Bureau. What gives? Why the interest in a transatlantic economy class ticket and not the $32 million differential between what the Globe City Hall Bureau had been reporting for years was owed to the City, and what actually came back from the panel?
I posed this question, and the journalist rightly advised me that he writes the stories — he doesn’t assign them. That’s what editors do (being the son of an award-winning former journalist and editor this was not lost on me). But still, aren’t journalists supposed to dig up scoop ideas and convince their editors that the space is warranted? Since when did writers become point-and-shoot missiles? Is that what happens in a union shop?
Perhaps Philip Preville had the real answer when he wrote last summer for Toronto Life Magazine:
“No one has it in for Porter Airlines like the Globe. Ditto for Porter’s landlord, the Toronto Port Authority….”
Now, there are ways to serve your community, of course, other than putting yourself into the seemingly no-win situation of the TPA. You can fundraise for the United Way. Join a Board of a local hospice or the CNIB, for example. Volunteer for the campaign of a local provincial hopeful. Build houses for Habitat for Humanity, as my friend Mark Gordon and his daughter did overseas.
But taking a shellacking from the Globe City Hall Bureau for the second day, of all newspaper outlets, is tough to take. I tried to get some errors corrected, but to no avail. These Adan Vaughan quotes were from the Beretta Barber article, and there wasn’t a ring of truth to any of it:
“I don’t know what the allegations are specifically,” he said. “I don’t know what expenses were or were not allowed under their policy. All I know is that attempts to get that information have been thwarted by the new majority on the board.”
“Something doesn’t look right,” he said. “It’s impossible to get this public body to account for how it spends public dollars.”
I am unaware of any “allegations”, and none were referred to in the actual piece. Which didn’t prevent Beretta Barber from using the quote nevertheless. The reference leaves the impression of potential unlawful activity, which is of course defamatory. TPA management followed the existing TPA Purchasing Policy at all times, as was stated in the press release that led to the original news story, so the suggestion that some expenses “were not allowed” isn’t founded in fact, unless Mr. Vaughan knows something I don’t.
I advised Mr. Gray what I had tried to get across to his shoot-to-kill colleague, that there was no discussion of this matter at the TPA’s Jan. 21st board meeting, which means the “new board” could not be thwarting anything to do with this matter. To the contrary, it is under the so-called new board’s watch that the press release was issued regarding the expense review. The Dec. 23, 2008 audit committee review that the Barber story was based upon occurred under a previous Chair of the Board, and yet no disclosure of this topic was made until this week — after he had been removed as Chair and the so-called “new majority” was in place. Having a keen sense for such details, I tried to make the point that this was the opposite fact pattern to Mr. Vaughan’s position as reflected in Beretta Barber’s story.
Even the Toronto Star’s own letters to the editor page was having some fun with the topic:
Isn’t it about time that David Miller ended his personal vendetta with the island airport? The Dispute Advisory Panel, which the mayor asked for, ruled that the island airport should pay in the same manner as other Ontario airports. Now, because they didn’t get their way with the panel, Miller and Howard Moscoe think that a legal remedy is the answer. We all know who pays for these legal challenges by the mayor – the Toronto taxpayer.
It’s time the mayor quit spending time and money trying to kill the island airport and got on with the business of running a city that is going downhill fast.
David Fournier, Sutton
Little solace that was, as things only got worse as the day wore on: the Globe and Mail’s online editor allowed a bunch of invective from the anti-Porter airlines/TPA crowd to fill up the comment section attached to Beretta Barber’s news story of Thursday. The Globe’s own online moderator even approved a post by one particularly angry person that was quite defamatory about the TPA crowd.
When this was pointed out to Globe Editor Edward Greenspon, the comment section was immediately closed and the defamatory comments were wiped clean. Ok, so at least the Globe admitted that they had let things go way too far. But it is a bit like closing the barn door after, well, you know. Apology? Not as of yet, anyway.
If the Globe is looking for other story ideas, there’s always the one about City Councillor Adam Vaughan. At the 2008 TPA AGM, Councillor Vaughan stood up and railed about this topic of payments-in-lieu-of-taxes. It is a convoluted issue that involves the quantum of money that other governments pay to local Cities in lieu of property taxes for land that they might own. The Councillor accused the TPA’s CFO of “lying under oath” regarding his testimony of what revenue the TPA earned from certain lands in 2002 and 2003; this revenue is factored into the calculation of what the payments should be to the City. The CFO calmly explained why the Councillor misunderstood the issue.
As Chair of the annual meeting, you’re thinking: did a sitting City Councillor just call a Chartered Accountant a “liar” in public? Did he just say that the C.A.’s “financial statements are misleading”? If he’s right, maybe he should write to the CICA and have the fellow’s credentials revoked. That would be a real scandal. One that the Globe City Hall Bureau would have every reason to show an interest in.
In the meantime, now that the federal panel has provided their advice on the matter (as the City of Toronto requested them to do), the Globe could do a story about the $32 million “gap”. And they could play the newsreel from September 2008 (Globe City Hall Bureau Chief Jennifer Lewington saw the distasteful display with her own eyes), when Councillor Vaughan called the TPA’s C.A. a “liar” in front of a hundred people. And turned out to have been wrong.
Alas, those stories don’t seem to make the cut. Then or now.
But $3,900 of travel expenses? An annual tribute dinner at Harbour 60 for the fifty or so TPA staff who have served the Port community for 25 years or more? That’s what seems to make their world rock at the Globe City Hall Bureau. And if some people are defamed along the way, or the facts are wrong, that’s just how it has to be in the race to prevent total obsolescence at the DTM.
This public service stuff is easier said than done.
(disclosure – this blog, as always, reflects a personal opinion and in no way represents the views of the TPA, its Board/Staff or the federal government)