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'Independent' authorities get some political oversight

Yesterday's announcement that the province is launching a review of both BC Ferries and and Translink has sparked plenty of speculation, but it is not yet clear whether the review is the start of some minor tweaking or a complete overhaul of the two organizations.

Both agencies are officially independent of government, but the provincial government is now hinting that it wants more control. “We must ensure the governance arrangements are operating as efficiently as possible and the authorities are meeting their service objectives,” said B.C. Finance Minister Colin Hansen in a statement announcing the review.

According to the terms of reference the B.C. government has set for Comptroller General Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland, it looks like the organizations' entire structures are under scrutiny.

Wenezenki-Yolland is supposed to review all legislation, agreements, annual reports and auditor general reports and consult with the agencies and other stakeholders in order to assess:

  • * The division of responsibility between the Province, the respective entities, commissions and authorities.
  • * The size, composition, appointment process and compensation for the board of directors of the BC Ferry Authority, BC Ferry Services Inc as well as the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority.
  • * The regulatory environment, including responsibilities, authorities and powers of the Ferry Commission as well as the regional transportation commissioner and Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation.
  • * The operating costs and service delivery models of the entities including the company’s efforts to reduce costs using alternate service providers, and actions to increase productivity and quality customer service.
  • * A review of options available to the Province that are consistent with the entities’ independence under generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) and which would ensure that existing and future independent, regulated, publicly created authorities such as BC Ferries and the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority are effectively structured to:
    • o Protect ratepayers’ interests with minimal administration costs, including hard caps on compensation levels for senior executives and board members.
    • o Protect clearly mandated customer service levels.
    • o Improve transparency and public accountability for decisions and performance levels.

One notable absence from the terms of reference is any requirement for public consultation.

It's a big job, but Wenezenki-Yolland only has two months to do it: a final report is due back to Finance Minister Colin Hansen and Transportation Minister Shirley Bond by September 30.

The tight timeline may be linked to Translink's ten-year planning process. One of the agency's proposed plans must be approved by the Mayor's Council on Regional Transportation no later than October 31.

Since the Mayors are advocating for the use of funds (such as the carbon tax) to which Translink currently does not have access, the B.C. Liberals have to decide by October whether to get involved or to allow local politicians and the Translink board to blame the province for starving away the ideal transit system envisaged by Translink's most expensive plan.

However, if Wenezenki-Yolland wants to save some time, she could start by talking to the B.C. Federation of Labour. They apparently already know what she is going to say about Translink.

“The provincial review of Translink announced today will show the Campbell government’s two-year old model of governance and funding has been a complete failure,” the organization asserted in a press release.

With slightly more modest expectations, Vancouver Sun columnist Miro Cernetig is hoping the review will do something about the “gravy train” salaries paid to Translink executives.

It's only been two years since Translink was last overhauled, but BC Ferries has had six years to prove that its privatized governance model has not magically enabled it to provide fabulous service at low cost.

The agency has faced considerable public criticism over fare increases, service cuts and growing debt, never mind concerns about safety relating to the Queen of the North.

And to add insult to political intervention, it was revealed yesterday that three PacifiCat vessels that B.C. Ferries sold off at a huge loss in a 2003 auction, have now been bought by United Arab Emirates company, reportedly for more than twice what the provincial agency received. As The Tyee reported in February, the final destination may be a new ferry service across the Red Sea, a world away from the Vancouver-to-Nanaimo route for which they were built.

Amelia Bellamy-Royds reports for The Tyee.

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