Newest public hire to transit commission highlights city's private process
Public transit commissioners are volunteers, but have all the powers of councillors
Todd Mattila-Hartman describes himself as working in the entertainment business, but he's better known for trying to resurrect the Storyland theme park off the highway near Renfrew, Ont.
He's been a member of a number of chambers of commerce, and ran unsuccessfully in 2013 for Ottawa city council in River ward.
As of Wednesday, he can add another entry to his resume: Ottawa transit commissioner.
That gives him all the same powers as an elected city councillor to vote on everything from OC Transpo bus route changes, to transit fares, to spending upwards of $500 million.
So how does someone who is, in Mattila-Hartman's own words, a "hop-on, hop-off" bus rider secure a seat at the transit decision-making table?
The short answer is, he applied.
Public commissioner quit recently
Under Mayor Jim Watson, four of the transit commission's 12 members have been members of the public.
Although the original intent behind including non-elected folks was to attract transit experts, that never worked out. These days, officials talk about public commissioners as bringing an "outside the City Hall bubble" perspective.
The only official criteria for public commissioners is that they be Ottawa residents, at least 18 years old, and not full-time permanent employees of the city.
The other public commissioners include:
- François Malo, a former military base commander who currently leads the team responsible for the management of the Canadian Forces Grievance System.
- Blair Crew, a lawyer who works at the University of Ottawa Community Legal Clinic, where he delivers front-line legal services to economically disadvantaged citizens.
- Graham Milner, who worked for an Ottawa-based not-for-profit at the start of this term, but is now a special assistant to Liberal MP Mona Fortier of Ottawa-Vanier.
A fourth member, Susan Burt, resigned recently, which opened up a spot for Mattila-Hartman. He had originally applied, he said, because he has always been "fascinated" by transit systems and, as someone who often takes the bus to run errands or get around in the evening, he could bring a non-commuter perspective to the commission.
He was the third person on the reserve list — the first two were unavailable. In other words, of the 41 people who applied to be commissioners, Mattila-Hartman was ranked seventh.
It's important to recognize that citizen commissioners are not paid for their work, which can be substantial if they're doing it properly. And some of them ask pointed and well-informed questions, as well as press for policy changes, as was the case with the low-income pass.
Still, public commissioners are not accountable to the public. When asked about this, Mattila-Hartman joked, "I'm accountable to my mother!"
Public members make up one third of the commission, so in theory they could cast the deciding votes on a contentious file.
While any major item would need the approval of full council to go ahead, that doesn't change that commissioners don't answer to constituents. We can't fire them once every four years if we think they're doing a bad job.
It would be almost inconceivable for a councillor to walk off a committee three-quarters of the way through a council term. When a public commissioner does so, it causes barely causes a ripple. Matilla-Hartman has been in orientation sessions with city staff to get up to speed on almost three years of transit files.
No transparency on political appointment
And we have no clear idea how these folks are selected.
Consider the case of Crew, who served as a commissioner in the previous term of council. He stepped down from the commission in the spring of 2014 to run the re-election campaign of Coun. Diane Deans, who happened to be the chair of the commission at the time.
Weeks after the 2014 election, Deans was on the three-member selection panel that re-instated Crew. (The other two members of the selection team were current transit chair Coun. Stephen Blais and a member of the mayor's office.)
At the time, Watson defended the move, calling Crew was "one of the strongest members of the transit commission." Fair enough. But, then again, Mark Johnson also seemed to be a strong member of the former commission, but he wasn't re-selected even though he applied. It's impossible to say why not.
Lacking in diversity
With the departure of Burt, Coun. Marianne Wilkinson is the only woman on the commission. There are no members with mobility issues, no recent newcomers, none with low-income lived experience. Half of the commissioners live in the Rideau-Vanier ward.
If there are no elected officials available to lend the commission more range, then shouldn't public commissioners be recruited to bring more diversity?
"We can only move forward with those who apply," said Blais, "and we still have to filter through those who apply to find the people who are most appropriate."
Blais allowed that it would be great if more people would come forward, "so we can have more qualified people who do actually apply to sit on the transit commission."
But it's hard to see how a wider range of recruits will just appear spontaneously.
Among the real barriers for many members of the public is the fact meetings occur during most people's workday.
Another is the lack of pay: if you're looking for someone who can speak to living on the fringes, who are trying to make ends meet, you can't ask them to volunteer hours and hours of their time.
If council takes transit seriously, and is committed to public members of the commission, finding the right scope of public voices shouldn't be left to wishful thinking.