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One man's struggle to span the divide

Gordon Chong’s bid to unite the GTA’s politicians has taken a big hit

Gail Swainson


Members of the GTSB rebuked chair Gordon Chong last month for his independent report on the future of the board.


It all started out so well for Gordon Chong, the newly elected chair of the Greater Toronto Services Board.

Unanimously chosen by the board’s 41 members in January, the affable former Metro and Toronto city councillor seemed well suited to the tough job of trying to shape combative GTA politicians into one relatively cohesive group.

With Chong leading, the board would surely march forward, one for all, all for one, to tackle Greater Toronto’s most pressing problems, such as traffic gridlock, environmental degradation and urban sprawl.

Or so the orthodoxy went.

At its inception two years ago, the province gave the board two tasks; run GO Transit and make a decision some time this year on what future roles the board could undertake to help Greater Toronto run more smoothly and efficiently.

The province wanted the board’s final recommendations in the spring and Chong was well on track to deliver.

But three short months after Chong took the helm of the GTSB, observers say the honeymoon has come to an end and bickering over territory has started.

Things began to unravel for Chong a scant 21/2 weeks ago when, to his colleagues’ dismay, he chose to break ranks and come up with his own 14-page report before the full board had held full discussions.

In his report, Chong recommended the GTSB take on some new jobs - namely create a separate, powerful transportation super-agency to handle transit planning across the GTA.

This board - Chong called it the Transportation Agency for the GTA - would do all planning for the Toronto Transit Commission, regional public transit and the GO Transit systems; plan regional roads and transit corridors.

In his musings, Chong also came out in strong support of adopting a governance model similar to that of the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

Four days later, it all came crashing down around his ears. A GTSB committee soundly rejected his plan, deciding instead to give the board power to set up special purpose bodies at a later date.

At that meeting, Durham Region chair Roger Anderson pilloried Chong for failing to attach any costs to his recommendations and other members joined in on the attack.

In an interview, Burlington Mayor Rob MacIsaac, who spearheaded the move to defeat Chong’s plan, said he did so because he thought the board needed more time to consider its options.

“I think our visions are very similar,” MacIsaac said in an interview at a recent smart growth conference he organized. (Smart growth is the latest scheme for controlling urban sprawl and involves higher density development with easy access to public transit, shopping and community services.)

Chong says his mistake was not properly consulting with board members and selling them on his ideas before issuing the report.

“It’s my failure in not bringing them on board,” Chong said in an interview. “But I think once people get over their concerns and have a chance to focus on the GTSB, I think they’ll see that the agency is the right way.”

The full board will decide on the matter later this week, though it’s still not clear when it will deliver its final recommendations to the province.

Chong has said in the past that it’s important for the GTSB to take control of transportation planning across Greater Toronto because “the province has abdicated their responsibility and the GTSB is the only body that can undertake it.”

And, in his report, he warned tackling Toronto’s gridlock woes must be the first order of business for the GTSB under any new mandate.

But board members like Ajax Mayor Steve Parish said provincial and federal transit funding must be in place before the board takes over any planning role.

And other members groused that Chong had thrust his vision for the board on the front burner before hearing what the members wanted.

Chong put on a brave face after being issued such a stern rebuke.

“What we’re going through right now at the GTSB reminds me of the whole amalgamation debate in Toronto,” Chong sighed. “But we’ll all just have to get through it and move on.”

Despite Chong’s soothing words, many observers say the big loss has delivered a serious blow to his credibility.

Toronto councillor and GTSB member Brian Ashton said Chong will have to focus for now on building bridges.

“I think he has a lot of potential to point people in the right direction, but you don’t do that with a stick,” Ashton said.

Ashton said Chong didn’t take enough time to properly foster relations with board members before coming out with his own vision.

‘You have to be accepted first before you ask people to make a political sacrifice … he’ll have to earn his spurs as a visionary.’

- Brian Ashton,
GTSB member, on chair Gordon Chong

“You have to be accepted first before you ask people to make a political sacrifice,” Ashton said. “Has he cast himself in the last decade as a politician concerned with regional issues?

“I don’t think so. So he’ll have to earn his spurs as a visionary.”

Chong himself traces his trouble to published comments he made saying the regions surrounding Toronto are likely doomed to political extinction as the Greater Toronto Services Board assumes more responsibility for GTA transportation and planning.

“Even though I didn’t say anything that many others aren’t also saying, when I saw the reaction, I thought it might cause trouble,” Chong admitted. “But I have no regrets.”

Ashton said Chong inadvertently weighed into long-simmering hostilities between Greater Toronto’s regions and smaller municipalities when he predicted the regions’ eventual demise.

“He managed to very quickly divide this board,” Ashton said. “He was very candid about the regions’ eventual disappearance. He advertised it. Bad move.”