When news came out that Denis Coderre planned to appoint Philippe Schnobb as chair of the STM, there was some controversy. Projet Montréal councillors objected to the fact that Schnobb, a former Radio-Canada journalist, has no experience in public transit and no experience managing a large corporation. The fact that this was a patronage appointment — Schnobb ran for Coderre, losing to Richard Bergeron — just made it worse.
But one thing that hasn’t gotten as much attention (though it was mentioned at the city council meeting) is the nature of Schnobb’s appointment as the transit users’ representative on the STM board.
The STM board has 10 members, of whom six are Montreal city councillors, one represents a demerged municipality within the STM’s territory, and three represent transit users (of them, one represents paratransit users and another, recently added, represents users under age 35).
But these three positions are not elected by the transit users. Instead, they’re appointed by the agglomeration council, with no requirement to consult transit users first. And that opens the door to political patronage.
In 2005, Brenda Paris ran for a city council seat for Gérald Tremblay’s Montreal Island Citizens’ Union party. She lost to Line Hamel of Vision Montreal. She had already been on the STM’s board as the transit users’ representative. She was kept in that position even though she was effectively a politician, eventually becoming the president of the party. In 2009, I said this was an inappropriate use of this post.
In 2009, Michel Labrecque ran for the Plateau borough mayor’s job for Tremblay’s Union Montreal with the understanding that he would continue to head the STM, a job he had for less than a year while a city councillor. He lost to Luc Ferrandez of Projet Montréal. But Tremblay kept him on anyway, making him the transit users’ representative in addition to chair of the STM board. (Paris also lost in this election, but by then she had switched parties.) Again, I wrote that this was inappropriate. I like Labrecque, and believe he actually did a good job as STM chair, but that doesn’t make it less wrong that he was taking a seat meant for someone else.
In 2013, Philippe Schnobb ran for a city council seat for Denis Coderre’s team. He lost to Richard Bergeron. But Coderre did what had been done for Brenda Paris and Michel Labrecque, using the transit users’ representative post as a loophole to get Schnobb on the STM board.
Schnobb’s appointment raises a lot of questions. Was he promised this job as a failsafe if he didn’t get elected? (Returning to journalism is hard after running in a political campaign.) What, other than loyalty to a party, convinced Coderre that Schnobb was a good choice? Is this yet another indication that Coderre has no interest in changing the way politics are run at Montreal city hall?
I don’t object to Schnobb sitting on the STM board. That board has had plenty of people with questionable qualifications and lacklustre interest in public transit. He might even do a great job. But if this position on the board is going to be filled only with failed politicians as patronage appointments, then let’s cut the bullshit and just call it the failed politicians’ representative.
The issue isn’t just a semantic one. As great as Labrecque was as a chairperson, and as patient and inviting as he was during question period at STM board meetings, or with individual users he ran into on the bus or metro, Labrecque never really comported himself as a spokesperson for transit users, or a link between them and the STM. He was the STM. He never made any formal effort to consult with the people he was supposed to be representing, outside of the same internal methods that all STM board members use. If that system was broken, there’s no way he’d ever know. His contact information was never published on the STM’s website — not even an email address. Actual transit users had no way to get in touch with him directly unless they went to a meeting or ran into him on the street.
I also believe that the nature of Labrecque’s appointment, and Paris’s before him, resulted in a lack of transparency on the STM board. In all the meetings I’ve attended, never once has anyone cast a vote opposing a motion. Never once as anyone debated a motion. Never once has a vote even been called. Everything is approved unanimously, without discussion. Everything, without exception, is rubber-stamped.
Take the last STM board meeting. After some announcements and a question period, the formal meeting begins. It lasts exactly five minutes and 45 seconds, the time it takes to read, occasionally explain, and approve 20 motions. That works out to about 17 seconds each.
This is typical of the STM board. And is a symptom of the groupthink that pervades the organization’s administration.
Another symptom is the STM’s formal transparency issues. The complete lack of discussion about motions proposed at board meetings is reflected in the list of motions that’s published sometimes only hours before a meeting, and which provide very little information. After a meeting once, I approached the secretary to ask for a document that was passed at the meeting, a change to a bus route. I was told that I had to file a formal access-to-information request. (At the time, those requests could only be filed by written letter or by fax.)
Let me repeat that: In order to find out what the STM board had just approved before me minutes before, I had to formally file an access to information request. Just to find out what the nature was of a bus route change, I had to write a letter and perhaps wait weeks for a response.
As far as I’m aware, this policy remains. None of the documents approved at the latest meeting are available on the STM website, nor are they available for reading if you go to the meetings in person.
And I can’t ask my transit users’ representative what he just voted to approve, because he’s also the chair of the STM, and politically tied to the government in power.
I honestly believe that if there was someone sitting on the STM’s board that was there to seriously represent transit users, these issues would have been resolved long ago.
Again, I think Labrecque did a good job as the STM’s chair, except on the issue of transparency. (And maybe their awful media relations, but that’s a bit of inside baseball.) And if the agglomeration of Montreal wants to replace one of those city councillor seats with an open seat they can fill with political losers, be my guest.
But giving the title “transit users’ representative” to someone who citizens didn’t even want sitting on city council, and then on top of that making that person the chair of the board despite a glaring lack of qualifications… It’s just wrong.
When Labrecque was appointed, I referred to it as a “giant ‘fuck you’ to users.” I was really tempted to use the same vulgar language here. Philippe Schnobb does not represent me any more than Marvin Rotrand or Richard Bergeron (either of whom by the way would have made much better choices for STM chair). And experience with Schnobb’s predecessors has shown me that he’s unlikely to make an effort to try to care about my interests.
It’s unfortunate that one of Coderre’s first acts as mayor has been to repeat a political manoeuvre of his predecessor, and to put the needs of his political team first, at the expense of the people he’s supposed to be serving.
UPDATE: The STM’s executive puts out a statement praising Labrecque and the accomplishments the corporation has made over his tenure.