Until recently, newly elected Liberal MP Adam Vaughan wanted to destroy the Toronto Port Authority. Now he wants to fix it.
In an interview ahead of the recent Trinity-Spadina by-election, Vaughan said he would like to reconstitute the board to include members chosen by local residents associations, cultural agencies and recreational groups in addition to businesses, "so that you have all the interests of the waterfront represented on the Port Authority, not simply the industrial ones." The federal agency whose primary asset is the Island airport currently describes itself as a "government business enterprise."
Vaughan's experience on council appears to have destroyed his faith in councillors' ability to protect waterfront interests. He pointed out that when the tripartite agreement governing operation of the airport [pdf] - and prohibiting jets there - was signed in 1983, the three parties to it were the federal government, the Toronto Harbour Commissioners (the largely city-controlled forerunner to the TPA) and the pre-amalgamation city of Toronto.
"Virtually every ward [representative] except for about four were waterfront politicians," he said, "and therefore they were sensitive to the issues and city council was the check and the balance against federal expansionism."
But now Porter Airlines exists and is a powerful lobbying interest at a larger council with a different political dynamic. "And as a result of that," he said, "if you were to get rid of the Port Authority and dump the tripartite agreement in the lap of someone like, I dunno, Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, or someone like Mayor Rob Ford, or put it in the hands of Economic Development with Michael Thompson, you would end up in a situation where you'd also have the Bombardier folks rattling the cages of Maria Augimeri and Anthony Perruzza" - left-leaning councillors who are keen to protect unionized aircraft manufacturing jobs in the Downsview area they represent.
Vaughan found it was thus "almost impossible to guarantee waterfront neighbourhoods I represented that I [could] marshal the 23 votes to protect the status quo, let alone defend against really aggressive expansion plans."
He said he sat down with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's office and told them about his reform idea and asked if he could say that was party policy. "To which I was told, ‘That's now Liberal policy. Run with it.'"
When Vaughan explained his new inclination in a Rogers TV debate during the run-up to the by-election, Queen's Park Briefing reporter John Michael McGrath mockingly tweeted, "Ahahahaha now someone ask about the OMB."
And TPA board chair Mark McQueen similarly snarked that "by reformed, @TOAdamVaughan means a TPA controlled by him, rather than someone else."
McQueen declined to comment directly on Vaughan's proposal when reached by email last week, but did offer that "Vaughan may have forgotten that [the TPA's mandate was] originally drafted and enacted by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. The current TPA Board is charged with fulfilling that mandate, but I disagree with any characterization that it is geared towards ‘industrial users.' The Outer Harbour Marina, for example, is the largest freshwater marina in North America."
Joe Cressy, the NDP candidate who ran unsuccessfully in Trinity-Spadina, certainly isn't a fan of Vaughan's new tack. After the Rogers debate, he told NOW that "the challenge is not to replace Liberal backroomers with Conservative ones, or Conservative with Liberal ones. It's to give control of the port back to the city so we can deal with waterfront issues within our own boundaries."
Cressy was skeptical that even a board composed of members selected for relevant expertise should have the ability to act as a restraint on council.
"Welcome to the Senate all over again, right?" he said. "We need unelected, undemocratic checks on elected representatives? If you want to stop jets flying out of the Island airport, you vote for the only mayoralty candidate who opposes jets flying out of the Island airport. That's what you do. You vote for councillors who stand up."
The history of the Port Authority - why it exists and why it is the way it is - is brutally convoluted. It emerged from what the Globe's John Barber described in a 1998 column as a morass of "political infighting even more complicated and intense than usual."
The short version is that when the Chrétien government introduced legislation establishing new frameworks for the country's major ports, Dennis Mills, the Liberal backbencher for the old riding of Broadview-Greenwood, put forward a last-minute amendment adding Toronto to the list.
This was just ahead of the 1997 federal election, and Mills was quite open about his political motives. "I know there are a number of people in Toronto who from time to time wonder... whether the Toronto members of Parliament are giving full force to the economic renewal which is needed in that city," he said, according to Hansard.
The Liberals won re-election, and Transport Minister David Collenette reintroduced the bill that fall, with Toronto still listed alongside far larger ports such as Halifax and Vancouver. All would be required to become financially self-sufficient.
In May 1998, while the bill was being reviewed by the Senate, the newly amalgamated Toronto city council voted 37-1 to ask that Toronto be excluded; Norm Kelly, our current deputy mayor, was the lone dissenter.
"The Port of Toronto will be structured like other key port cities," Collenette wrote in a Star op-ed in which he also boasted that cruise ships visiting Toronto would become the next big thing. "Last October marked the arrival of the Columbus, a tourist ship specifically built to go through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The potential for other tourist ships stopping at Toronto is limitless."
Crucially, however, he also assured readers that as far as the TPA's board goes, "The majority are to be appointed after consultation with port users."
Indeed, the TPA's letters patent (which essentially serve as both its incorporation papers and its charter) specified that this was to be the case. Even after being amended by the Conservatives in 2008 to expand the size of the board, this remains the official rule.
Of the board's nine members, the federal government, city of Toronto, and province of Ontario appoint one each. The remaining six are chosen by the federal transport minister "in consultation with the users selected by the Minister, or the classes of users."
These "user directors" are supposed to be put forward by and represent the interests of one of the four designated user classes: port-related activities/operators (shippers and such); airport (any business related to that); commercial users (e.g., developers, hotel operators, retail businesses); and recreational business (yacht clubs, cultural businesses, etc).
The TPA website proudly lists the biographies of its board members, who have extensive experience in fields such as finance, law and telecommunications. But at least as far as the online bios indicate, the closest connection any of them has to the waterfront is that city appointee Jim Ginou, a Conservative fundraiser who brought in cash for Rob Ford in 2010, was once chair of Ontario Place Corporation.
Geoffrey Wilson, president and CEO of the Port Authority, says he feels "blessed" to have an "excellent board." He says that because 80 per cent of the TPA's business involves the airport and related capital projects, it's helpful to have a number of board members who are experts in finance and another with experience in the aerospace industry (though the latter also happens to be friends with Porter CEO Robert Deluce).
Asked if he knows of anyone on the board who has a connection to a user class other than aviation, Wilson says he is "personally very satisfied that the board of directors for the Toronto Port Authority offers what it must in terms of experience and commitment and expertise to allow this agency to meet its mandate. And its mandate as a government business enterprise is to be financially self-sufficient."
A TPA spokesperson explains that the organization doesn't have any information concerning how the six user directors are reflective of the specified user classes, and that the question would be better put to the minister of transport, who makes the appointments.
In an emailed response, a media relations adviser for the ministry offers no specifics regarding current board appointees and instead just outlines the general requirements and process.
Councillor Pam McConnell would prefer to abolish the TPA altogether. Her ward encompasses the portion of the waterfront between York Street and the mouth of the Don, and includes the islands but not the port lands.
"I'm not surprised that now that Adam is in Ottawa he believes that that's where the power should be, but I disagree entirely with him," she says. She has sympathy for his "very tricky situation" as a new Liberal, but thinks council has actually been pretty good on these issues and is disappointed that he'd "diss" his former colleagues' capacity to deal with them. "I had hoped he would take the message to Ottawa that our council should be more in control of our backyard, or our front yard - ‘front porch,' as they call it."
The Ward 28 rep believes that decisions concerning "what should and shouldn't happen in the city of Toronto should be in the hands of people who are directly elected" by residents. But she also imagines that, if given control of the TPA's assets, the city would manage them through a committee of some sort that would likely include some citizen members.
Brian Iler, on the other hand, isn't exactly enthusiastic about Vaughan's proposal but is still remarkably okay with it. Iler, a lawyer whose eponymous firm specializes in serving "socially-minded clients," is the chair of CommunityAIR, a group that has long pushed for elimination of the Island airport and been a thorn in the TPA's side.
"I think what Adam is viewing is the Waterfront Toronto model [that] works incredibly well for our city, where we have all three levels of government collaborating and we have essentially a veto on all three sides," says Iler. He is "favourably disposed" to the idea of folding the TPA into "something like Waterfront Toronto, which has a much more acceptable vision of what our waterfront can be and where it's going."
But does it make sense to keep it as a federal agency as opposed to a city agency or another such body subject to council?
"That cuts both ways," he says. "When we have a good, progressive council that listens to the needs of its citizens, you get good government and you get good governance for the waterfront. But when you have a regime like we have right now, it would be a disaster."
He gets Vaughan's frustration and reluctance to hand councillors the keys. "If I were in his shoes," he says, "I'd be pretty jaded, too."
Anshul Kapoor, the chair of NoJetsTO, a newer group that opposes airport expansion, doesn't really care how the Port Authority is reformed so long as that reform includes the voices of Torontonians.
He says the TPA's impact exceeds its current scope, and "it's due time that both the scope and the impact are measured, calculated and accounted for."
TORONTO PORT AUTHORITY TICKER
• Established in 1999, along with port authorities for Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver, Saint John, St. John's and 10 other cities.
• Boasts that it's "the only port authority in Canada that operates a land-based airport."
• Owns and runs the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (at the western side of the Toronto Islands), the Port of Toronto (at the western end of the port lands) and the Outer Harbour Marina (sandwiched between the port lands and the Leslie Spit).
• Operates out of the old Toronto Harbour Commission Building at 60 Harbour, the first floor of which is home to the Harbour Sixty Steakhouse.
• President and CEO is Geoffrey Wilson, previously an executive at Triton Container, Budget Car and Truck Rental and Cartel Communications Systems.