Electric bus flip-flop shows how council decisions are really made

Electric bus flip-flop shows how council decisions are really made

When Ottawa's transit commission voted in favour of buying two electric buses this week, it didn't initially appear to be controversial news.

As OC Transpo boss John Manconi said during the meeting, "everyone here is in favour of electric buses," a reference to the transit commissioners and city staff sitting in the Champlain meeting room at city hall.

Everyone? Actually, no. Just last month, in fact, city staff penned a memo — signed by Manconi himself — recommending against an electric bus pilot, at least for now.

The sudden change of heart came after Mayor Jim Watson moved a motion at last week's fiery council meeting to introduce electric buses to the OC Transpo fleet, something he'd promised to do during last fall's election campaign.

The incident could be seen as the latest example of what a few councillors have called the politicization of city staff.

Jean Delisle/CBC
Jean Delisle/CBC

Deans raised issue

Many factors go into how a councillor makes a decision, including financial and political considerations. To a large degree, council counts on having objective information and honest opinions from city staff.

But recently, some councillors have said privately they're concerned about the so-called politicization of staff — the idea that staff information is sometimes packaged in a way that bolsters the mayor's viewpoint.

Coun. Diane Deans raised the issue publicly at last week's council meeting after staff issued a memo regarding transit fares.

Watson wanted to freeze fares, while Deans wanted staff to look at a possible fare rollback in light of the extended LRT delay.

The memo spelled out how much a transit freeze would cost versus a discount, but the calculations used seemed arbitrary and skewed to put the fare-freeze option — the mayor's preference — in the most favourable light.

For example, the memo said a freeze would cost the city $680,000 in lost revenue over two months, but a fare rollback of 30 per cent would cost $29 million over six months.

Why the different time periods? And why a 30 per cent rollback, and not some other number?

There was certainly a good argument to be made for not offering a discount, but it could have been made more honestly. A one-month freeze would cost around $300,000, while every 10 per cent taken off transit fares would cost about $1.6 million — and take two months to implement.

That's objective information that council could have used to decide. Instead, the memo seemed designed to strengthen the mayor's side of the debate.

E-buses got thumbs down last month

And then, there was this week's flip-flop by transit staff on electric buses.

Back in February, Coun. Catherine McKenney asked OC Transpo staff to look at the feasibility of introducing zero-emission electric buses in 2020.

The response came last month. The answer, attributed to Manconi, said in no uncertain terms that "staff are not recommending proceeding with an electric bus pilot project."

A "good portion" of the bus fleet, the memo said, would have to be replaced in the mid-2020s, which would give OC Transpo time then to review all zero-emission technologies and take advantage of the results from pilot projects in other cities.

"Conducting our own pilot project will simply replicate work and add costs with no added value," wrote Manconi.

A reasonable response, if disappointing for some. And it's seemingly objective advice, which councillors don't have to take — our elected officials are the ones who decide what to do with our money, with staff there to give unbiased opinions on the best way forward.

Kate Porter/CBC
Kate Porter/CBC

Shifting gears

Then, the mayor moved a motion last week directing staff "to introduce electric buses to the OC Transpo fleet within this term of council."

"This was a campaign commitment I made during the campaign," Watson told council colleagues when introducing his motion. "That's the commitment I made to the people of Ottawa."

Watson's motion directed the transit commission to deal with the issue at its June 19 meeting — and find the necessary money somewhere.

And sure enough, transit staff recommended buying two electric buses for $6 million. (Actually, Manconi was planning to sole-source them from Nova Bus, and had a contract ready, but the commission insisted on a proper procurement procedure.)

A reporter asked Manconi if OC Transpo had the resources to manage this project, considering staff said just a month ago they didn't. The transit GM evaded the question, which is understandable. Who wants to battle the boss in public?

As the mayor, Watson naturally should wield influence and provide leadership. But it appears he may also be involved in shaping how information is presented to councillors, which is no way for elected officials to make a decision

So, a thought experiment: if Watson had previously asked about the feasibility of an electric bus pilot, and mentioned he had made it a campaign promise, would the answer from transit staff been the same one they gave McKenney?

If the answer is no, that's a problem.