Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday February 1, 2020
Hamilton transit task force secrecy is an embarrassment
Whichever side of the Light Rail Transit debate you stand on, you should not be happy or satisfied by the Ford government’s decision to have its transit task force operate behind closed doors. In secret. With no transparency, and no opportunity for the public (or its proxy, the media) to observe the task force at work.
This task force was thrown together by Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney after the province abruptly cancelled Hamilton’s long-planned LRT line, right in the middle of construction bidding.
The purpose of the task force appears to be to lend the optics of objectivity to the process. It’s widely recognized that the math used by the province to justify the decision is fake, and any real cost overruns wouldn’t be out of line with overruns on other similar transit projects that are going ahead, while Hamilton’s got summarily cancelled.
It’s more than a bit odd to have a hand-picked group of non-elected citizens put in place to make decisions on the best future options for public transit in the city. Isn’t that what we have a local government for? That government had a position, which was LRT. So what the province is doing now is putting the opinions of its task force above the stated position of the local government. But never mind. Fair enough. If the task force does a credible job, it will be a worthwhile endeavour.
But how will anyone know if it does a credible job given that it is operating in secret? This is absolutely no reflection on the members of the task force. They seem earnest and no doubt trying to do the thing in the public interest. The lack of transparency isn’t their fault, but it’s fair to say their work will be judged differently than if it was taking place in relative sunlight.
Part of what rankles here is the justification for the secrecy. To be fair, this is a government that typically wouldn’t offer any justification for its arbitrary decisions, but in this case, at least a civil servant agreed to address the question of why the task force meetings — there have already been two — must be behind closed doors.
The meetings must remain secret, according to the province, to protect ” commercially sensitive” information like cost estimates, procurement matters or past budgets. Also, the province says, the secrecy will give task force members the freedom to have “open discussion” about prospective options so there is not “a public debate on every single project they may be looking at.”
Respectfully, that is an absolutely terrible rationale for shutting out the public and media. City councils and committees regularly go in camera to discuss issues that are legally or financially sensitive. There are provisions for that. To suggest that all the deliberations of the task force should be secret for that reason is — sorry to be blunt — silly.
And to allow task force members to speak freely? They can’t do that in a public forum, like city council does? Like the Ontario legislature does? Is the government really saying that only secrecy can allow for forthright discussion and debate? And does consciously setting out to limit “public debate” a good thing? Is that the sort of democracy the Ford government wants for Ontario?
But don’t worry. The agendas for task force meetings will be made public. After the fact. And the things discussed will eventually be summarized for public consumption.
So calm down and don’t fret. The government knows what’s best for you. Just sit back and relax. All will be known in the fullness of time. You can trust Doug Ford and friends, right? (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)