If you pay attention to the goings on at Guelph City Hall, it would not come as any great surprise that a high level position’s been vacated this week, but the part that was surprising was just how quickly and quietly it was done. Two paragraphs, buried on the city website with no notice sent out to the media, revealed that Transit Manager Phil Meagher had been terminated “without cause” after over three years at the helm of Guelph’s bus fleet. Subsequent reporting revealed that Meagher’s departure also meant the end to the possible implementation of the Transit Growth Strategy that he had helped shepherd for the last two years. With the budget process about to begin, I think we know what that means…
Before you say it, yes, that is a terribly cynical thing to say, but it will likely be the truth once staff post the numbers for the tax-supported budget, and on top of that, it happened last year. When the budget came through, staff was talking about a dollar more for cash fares, $5 more for monthly passes, and eliminating stat holiday service while taking Sunday service down to one hour. This was the same year that Transit had committed to heavy public consultation on the Growth Strategy, which would have seen several exciting new initiatives to modernize the routes and schedules, including a 10-minute frequency “spine” that would travel up and down the Woolwich-Norfolk-Gordon corridor.
You’ve heard of A Tale of Two Cities? Well, this was a tale of two approaches to public transit. On the one hand, there was someone or a group of someones that seemed like they wanted to make Guelph Transit a functional and attractive alternative to driving a car, and on the other there’s someone or a group of someones that sees Transit as a drain on the system, an easy place to chop in the response to the siren call of lower tax increases. Given that Meagher is now gone, as announced by Deputy CAO Colleen Clack, it’s apparent that we now know who’s who.
Or maybe Meagher was scapegoated. For people actually doing the work of Transit it can’t be easy when they’re paying for political decisions made by council and senior staff. Think of the outrage about missed connections and transfers when the City cancelled peak service for the summer, or the people that only discovered a Guelph Storm ticket isn’t a bus ticket anymore after eight years of Fridays when they tried to get to the home opener in September. (Not even the Mayor had heard about that one.) There’s probably only so many times you can take the blame for decisions made that weren’t yours when you say you’ve had enough, and you won’t be the good soldier anymore.
But we don’t know what happened because like so much at City Hall it happened in the shadows. A need for confidentiality can be understood and appreciated, but this isn’t the first high-level departure for a city staff member this year, so where did Meagher go so horribly wrong that the only option was to show him the door in an expedited manner? It’s doubtful that anyone will ever say why on the record, but one can theorize. Perhaps Meagher, buried under a laundry list of complaints and social media sniping, was running loggerhead with a senior staff that was not only unwilling to invest in his department, but sees it as the first place to cut service and increase user fees thus insuring the cycle of viciousness continues.
Unfair? Hardly. The City has made a practice of choosing Transit as proof of their commitment to cut because, and they have admitted this, cutting Transit affects the fewest people… In 2007 the City moved from a 30-minute schedule to a 40-minute one and eliminating one trip every two hours, in 2012 they completely reoriented the Transit routes without giving drivers the training they needed, in 2014 they locked out Transit workers for reasons supposedly related to the fact that giving the union what they were promised would have bankrupted the city, and last year they cut peak service and did the other things. When times get tough, the City gets tough on Transit, and half of council has already warned that this is going to be a difficult budget year.
The City feels emboldened to do all this because at the end of the day Transit is not seen by many as a vital service, but a treat for the people that can’t afford a car, or for one reason or another can’t operate one: the working poor, students, seniors, and people with disabilities. The message is clear from certain quarters: you should be grateful to have a transit system at all, never mind one that addresses the concerns of the modern commuter. The thing is though that if the City was really concerned about perceptions of business savvy and forward-thinking, they would realize that a more commuter-friendly service is what they need.
I could make all the points I’ve made a thousand times over about service industry workers who still have to put in hours on Sundays and stat holidays, or shift workers that still have to make to their jobs after Transit closes down on Sunday night, but it’s hard to imagine that staff don’t already know this. Instead, I refer to a recent conversation I had with Clack about the elimination of Free Ride Fridays for Storm ticket holders. Using the City’s own numbers, I pointed out that those 400 people that used the promotion, if they all went down to the game in cars with groups of four, they were still keeping 100 vehicles off the road and freeing up 100 extra parking spaces downtown. Clack’s reaction was to point out that free transit all the time would keep many more cars off the road, which is like saying less people would get fat if they stopped making potato chips.
While council has made a concerted effort to understand the issues around Transit, I think it’s safe to say that staff, sadly, has not. Councillors can relate, but they can’t dedicate the going over one department line by line to find better efficiency, so, instead, the duty falls to staff. They’re treating the department and its issues like a math problem as opposed to a people problem, and they know they can get away with it because the people mad about Transit problems have no power; many of them don’t vote, they don’t fit the preferred middle class definition of “taxpayer”, and they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place because they *have to* take the bus. So don’t be surprised when the operating budget comes out with a fare increase and more suggested service cuts. City staff doesn’t get it and more important than that, they don’t care. I guarantee it.