September 3, 2014

Comedy and Tragedy at TransLink

It makes you want to laugh, and cry.
Here’s the third story posted by CTV News on the subject of executive bonuses at TransLink: “TransLink exec salaries rise despite supposed ‘freeze’.”  It’s such a fine example of Bateman Bait, it seems scripted:

TransLink executives are coming under fire from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for continued pay increases.
The Lower Mainland transit authority issued its 2013 salary disclosure documents last Friday afternoon and it shows many executives receiving “record-breaking pay”, according to the CTF.
“If that’s a pay freeze, sign me up,” said CTF B.C. Director Jordan Bateman in a release. “Only in TransLink’s crazy world a pay freeze mean a pay raise.”

CTV was not alone.  CBC used the opportunity of their extended 5 pm newscast to run the whole Reel of Shame – the breakdowns, the delays, the expenditures – and mentioning, of course, the request for more money due to come in the spring referendum.
Ah, the referendum. Effectively, the referendum campaign has started – and at the moment it is about TransLink. And if it remains about TransLink, most believe, it loses.  If it’s about our future, how we shape growth, about jobs, the economy and quality of life, it has a chance.
So how’s the campaign going?

CTV News requested an interview with Jarvis but was told he was unavailable.
“I don’t think the ceo needs to stand up and defend his salary.” said, Colleen Brennan TransLink’s Vice President of Communications. “I think the board made a decision on the CEO’s salary. The board’s decision stands and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.”

Ah, the board.  The people who made the decisions, who are therefore accountable.  They need to explain why what they do is the right thing to do.  But like Jarvis, apparently unavailable, or at least not apparent.
The board consists of good, competent people, committed to a better community – leaders, in fact, whether in the private sector or civil society.  They bring tested skills of a high order.   (Disclosure: I was on the committee that put forward nominees for the board to the Mayors’ Council.)
Many of them do live in the world where executives are compensated in six and seven figures, where bonuses and incentives are considered good practice. It’s the way many believe it should be at a $10-billion corporation.  At least if one is not a local politician, and understands that a bonus that’s greater than most people’s income isn’t going to go down well after recent events.
But I can understand why the board members find it distasteful and inappropriate to be slagging it out with the likes of Bateman, that it wasn’t what they were appointed for, that it’s best to have the PR people up front, sticking to the script.
There’s the tragedy.  Given what’s at stake – minimally the economy, environment and quality of life of this region – these are leaders who can’t or won’t lead in a way that makes a difference.
And so, at the moment, the referendum is losing by default.

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  1. Well stated.
    The salary per se is not too high for a stressful job with thousands of employees, but it has to be explained better to private citizens that think $220,000 is a high salary let alone $400,000+ Including a bonus. The bonus also should be explained in simple terms, and not hidden in a footnote on page 98 of an auditor’s report.

    1. The recent concentration of power and wealth in the top 1% needs to be reversed. It is corrosive to democracy and the whole well-being of our society, including for the 1%. (See The Spirit Level) It is particularly dysfunctional in organizations like transit agencies that primarily serve people in the lower half of the income / wealth spectrum.

  2. Also lastnight CTV reported that the City of Vancouver is considering lowering speed limits to 40 km/h. After the segment while going to break, Mike Kileen chimed in saying he thought it would lead to more congestion, while Tamara said the traffic in the downtown already crawls due to congestion so it wasn’t necessary. Funny how they both have families with kids but seem to worry about congestion versus safety. Also found it telling that they both felt the need to comment after the news piece, I thought newscasters were suppose to be neutral.

  3. Sigh… If you want executives that are similarly competent to those in the private sector you have to pay them similarly.
    It’s just a reality. I know most people think they could do Ian Jarvis’ job and that he gets that pay unfairly by gaming the system, or through luck, but that simply isn’t true. Skilled executives capable of making good decisions are worth much more than they are paid.
    I’ll happily see paid Jarvis over half a million dollars if it means avoiding billion dollar mistakes that would be made under an el cheapo manager. Jarvis would probably be making much more in the private sector as it is.
    Some people simply have skills that are worth ten or twenty times other peoples’ skills. Deal with it.

    1. As if Ryan, Translink hasn’t made any mistakes. One obvious example is the compass cards that still don’t work and probably never will without spending much more in reprogramming them. Turnstiles that are still not used. Over budget on practically everything they attempt to put in place. If that is the appropriate criteria for getting served up a bonus I’ll eat my socks. Let’s face it. The big boys in business look after each other. You scratch my back and I will scratch yours.

      1. Denny, this isn’t one of Translink’s mistakes. Turnstiles were forced on them by the Liberals. Here’s a quote from that well known pro-transit news site 1130 – “BC’s transportation minister is standing by the decision to install fare gates at SkyTrain stations, despite a study suggesting they won’t accomplish much”.

  4. An organization doesn’t bury a news release on the Friday before the last long weekend of summer unless they’re trying to hide something. Does anyone really believe Translink didn’t know the public would see this as a way to circumvent the pledge to freeze wages? Ian Jarvis’ bonus alone is well above the average wage for Metro Vancouver. If they are trying to win a referendum, they have a funny way of going about it.

  5. I can understand, although totally disagree with the fact the Liberals are ignoring the referendum because they want it to fail.
    I don’t understand though why translink is so silent on the issue when it is in their own best interests to see it succeed. If I had someone telling me there’s a public vote on whether or not to fund my workplace, workers, infrastructure, all of it…you can be sure as hell I’d be mounting a massive PR campaign to make sure it happens. Their silence is just dumbfounding.

    1. Of course the Liberals want the referendum to fail. Spending on things that benefit the lower half of the economic spectrum is inconsistent with a party committed to low taxes on corporations and high income residents. Refusing to address the class composition issue in public education despite being told to do so by the courts follows the same pattern. They don’t want the system that educates the poor and middle class to rival the system that educates the rich and powerful.
      Transit spending, in particular, is completely inappropriate when your party depends on rural and auto-centric suburban ridings for its power. So we see major highway projects and LNG plants going into Liberal ridings even though the LNG might eventually have to be sold at cost and yield little more than a few hundred permanent jobs for BC.
      The government is probably aware that Metro Vancouver accounts for 50% of the province’s economy and is economically many times more important than the entire oil and gas industry in the province, but is under the delusion that building more highways will allow the region to prosper.
      The referendum must be about loosening the noose around the neck of this city’s economy. If it ends up being a referendum on the transportation authority that, although doing a good job, is widely reviled by the public and blamed for anything and everything, then all is truly lost. Stepping forward to champion the referendum would accomplish nothing more than place the collective neck of TransLink into the guillotine.

      1. Your rhetoric is contradictory. How can the BC Liberals simultaneously be catering to their suburban and rural base while at the same time be trying to wreck their kids education in favour of a wealthy urban elite?

    2. The liberals do not want the referendum to fail, actually they would be perfectly happy for it to succeed, but what they do not want is to be responsible for raising taxes to fund transit. They think that’s toxic. But if the people did it themselves, it would relieve them of some very difficult decisions plus improve the economy and people’s well being. A win win all around.
      And I suspect that Translink does not want to champion it because they know that it will make it more and more a referendum about them, and that is a sure loser.

  6. Some thoughts on executive pay.
    The word “compensation” is a euphemism which suggests that all involved are a bit embarrassed and that someone is being paid too much. Notice that everyone making under $50k a year is “paid” and everyone making over $200k a year is “compensated”.
    Corporations do not run as Joel Bakan would have you believe in “The Corporation”. They might be monomaniacly tasked with making money, but actually they are more complex. Corporations may be conceived as pure profit machines, but in reality they are organizations filled with people, and people respond to more things besides profit. A pure profit machine would eliminate all unnecessary workers, move all production to East Asia, and pay people the bare minimum to get them to stay at their jobs. Stereotypes aside, corporations can be pretty half-hearted about this. As anyone who has worked in any type of organization knows, waste abounds. There are people that don’t pull their weight, are too dense for the job or are overpaid. Bosses don’t deal with this because they want to avoid awkward situations (and because they are lazy, dense and overpaid too). This dynamic plays out on boards. Everyone on the board knows each other personally and may be friends. While it may be in the organizations best interest to chop $100k off the CEO’s pay, no one on the board wants to tell it to the CEO’s face: “You’re not worth this” or “you’re too stupid for this job.”
    I’m not for the elimination of all “waste” because, warts and all, human organizations are nicer that pure profit machines and partly because that “waste” spreads some of the wealth around. But a useful metric to determine whether people are overpaid is to look at how much attrition there is. If people gush out of the place from every orifice, it’s a sign that they aren’t paid enough. If they never leave, then a sign that they are paid too much. So it’s a question that boards and all employers ought to be asking themselves: would these people still work here if they were paid less? And if the answer is yes, then pay ought to be trending down, not up.
    Board of Translink: If you want to halve your CEO expense, I’ll do the job. I’m serious.