Mid-pen highway: Is anyone really listening?

Martin Sarabura The Hamilton Spectator Jun. 18, 2003

Hamilton Spectator File Photo

Then Ontario Premier Mike Harris announced the mid-peninsula highway in 2001.

In a recent letter to the editor in The Spectator, Ontario Minister of Transportation Frank Klees asked the public to get a copy of the Mid-Peninsula Transportation Corridor Environmental Assessment Terms of Reference (ToR) and comment. So I did.

It's more than 80 pages long and not exactly fun reading, but I found some problems to which I would like to draw people's attention.

The main problem is that the assessment is not sufficiently open to public scrutiny. I attended an "information session" hosted by the project team and told someone my opinions.

He was very nice, very polite, told me he appreciated my input and that he would forward the information to the right person. Did this happen? I don't know.

Can I find out if my recommendations were duly considered? I don't know. Will the data be available in 10 years in case any legal questions arise about the process by which the highway was planned? I don't know.

What I do know is that I don't feel that I really participated. I don't have faith in the supposedly democratic process. Now, maybe my fears are groundless. Maybe in spite of my apprehensions, my opinions will be considered and acted upon.

Well, in that case, I want to know. I want to know that I made a difference. I want to know that all those fine words about accommodating the concerns of the various stakeholders are more than just words.

Section 5.2 talks about determining route alternatives via two approaches: The reasoned argument (trade-off) method and the arithmetic method. The reasoned argument method is straightforward:

You take all the competing requirements and basically find the route that best fits them. It involves some logic, but what works for one person may not work for another.

The arithmetic method involves coming up with a score for each proposed route, and the lowest score wins. It sounds more scientific but it isn't really since each factor is weighted according to a rather non-scientific methodology.

In Section 5.2 under the title "Weighting (level of importance)" the ToR requires that questionnaires be distributed at the second round of consultation activities.

Then the ToR states, "This will provide the project team with an understanding of community values with respect to the relative importance of each environmental feature."

I have three problems with this:

* The project team takes the questionnaire results and comes up with its own set of weightings that seem to reflect the public's desires. This is inherently prone to bias and is a conflict of interest.

The project team may or may not come up with an appropriate set of weightings given the input they received from the public. What happens if one or more members of the public dispute the weightings as determined by the project team? To whom do we appeal?

* How are the questionnaire results to be aggregated? I don't necessarily want my Ancaster priorities to be lumped in with those of residents of Stoney Creek or Welland. The ToR does not discuss the guidelines around aggregation and I think it should.

* The detailed results of the questionnaire should be publicly available since the allocation of weighting values appears to be entirely up to the discretion of the project team.

I believe the actual raw data from the questionnaires should be available to the public to encourage open and honest communication.

Thus, in determining the weightings, there appears to be no oversight, no possibility of appeal, and no access to the raw data from the questionnaire. I don't know about you, but this does not sound like a particularly democratic process to me.

The next section titled "Implementation of Evaluation Approaches" talks about choosing a route when the reasoned argument method disagrees with the arithmetic method.

It states, "If the rationale supporting the trade-off decisions is valid and appropriate, the preferred alternative identified by the reasoned argument (trade-off) method will stand."

This statement gives blanket authority to the team to ignore the arithmetic method. The problem is that the reasoned argument method will always be "valid and appropriate" under certain assumptions.

Somebody else starting from different assumptions may choose a different route that is just as valid and appropriate for their set of assumptions.

But since the project team (and nobody else) provides the framework for the application of the reasoned argument method, it will always frame the discussion in terms which lead inexorably toward the solutions they favour.

My final problem with the ToR does not pertain to a particular section of the document because it simply isn't there. The ToR does not specify how the data are to be stored so that if a conflict arises some day in the future the data will be available to resolve the conflict.

The ToR should indicate how long the data should be held. It should provide for duplication in case of a loss of data in the main storage facility.

I think that the worst travesty of justice and good governance is the shredding machine. We own that data. This is a democracy -- we are the government! We should have access to it.

I'm talking about the Internet here, not hard copy. In Douglas Adams' book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur Dent finds out that the plans for the highway bypass going through his home were "on display" in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet in a basement lavatory with a sign on the door saying "Beware of the leopard." In the Internet age I think we can do better than that. If the project team is doing their job properly, they should have nothing to fear. The data will support their decisions.

I realize that good governance takes time and money. But does it really cost all that much?

When government employees have no oversight, they cut corners -- corners we the public may not want them to cut. When they have no oversight, they may be tempted by bribes.

Think about the inquiry into a hugely expensive computer-purchase deal in Toronto right now.

If city employees knew they were being scrutinized, would they have made such costly mistakes? Would they have flown to Philadelphia to watch playoff hockey knowing somebody would be reviewing the airline's records? I don't think so.

Good governance requires openness and access to data used to support decisions. The Internet allows any citizen to participate in this democracy. Most of them won't look at the data. Most of them won't care.

But some of them will. And those citizens, God bless them, those citizens will make our democracy work.

Martin Sarabura lives in Ancaster.


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