Home Politics Towhey to give advice on leadership and diplomacy?

Towhey to give advice on leadership and diplomacy?

Right about now, the former Chief of Staff of the embattled Mayor of Toronto will be taking to the radio airwaves. According to his Twitterfeed, he plans to provide his insight into this week’s news from City Hall regarding Porter Airlines’ proposal to change the airport’s use and fly Bombardier CS-100s from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. He plans to give the Toronto Port Authority some advice, by the sounds of it:

Mark Towhey (@towhey) 11/30/2013, 12:18 PM
Missing in Action: @TorontoPort Authority. Why its failure to lead on Island Airport issue hurts #Toronto. Sunday at 1pm on @newstalk1010.

What Mark Towhey is going to contribute to the topic I don’t know. To paraphrase a line from Casablanca, I’ve not given it any thought, frankly. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, either. Last I heard, Mr. Towhey was still very much unemployed following his sudden, televised departure from City Hall. Under normal circumstances, that’d be that. He’d toddle off into the anonymity from which he came. We know his name for the same reason that we knew H.R. Haldeman’s: the infamy of their respective bosses. Apparently, this notoriety gets him some airtime on AM radio (to be clear, no one has ever accused Mr. Towhey of breaking the law).

Given Mr. Towhey’s disinterest in Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport during his time on the Mayor’s staff, it is strange that he’d feel that he had any insight to provide now. My one and only extended experience with him involved an issue a couple of years ago around the construction of the Toronto Port Authority’s pedestrian tunnel to the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. The issue was simple, or so I thought, given the new Mayor’s stated love for BBTCA.

Normally, I don’t talk about these kinds of things. I’ve never blogged about anything specific from my five years in Ottawa, for example. The simple reason being that confidentiality is expected — and understandably so. Same goes for my dealings at City Hall and Queen’s Park regarding the TPA; regardless of the political stripe or motivation of the person I was dealing with. There’s a code, and we all understand it. In this case, I’m going to make an exception, given the hypocrisy that abounds as a result of Mr. Towhey’s choice of topics today — plus the fact that nothing turns on my decision to give you some insight into today’s self-appointed prognosticator.

For background purposes, this is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to Mayor Ford as Chairman of the TPA in the second week of January 2011, shortly after his election:

Engineers have designed the proposed route for the BBTCA pedestrian tunnel in such a way that it “jogs” around a particular dockwall owned by the City of Toronto, which is situated just east of the TPA property that supports the city-side passenger ferry terminal. With this “jog” the TPA requires no City permits or easements to construct the tunnel, as the entire project is then on TPA land, should we decide to ultimately proceed with the initiative in the coming weeks. Given your predecessor’s longstanding opposition to the BBTCA, and his specific public anti-tunnel comments of August 7, 2009, we were unable to engage with the City on this topic. Time is now of the essence, as the final pedestrian tunnel route design must be delivered to the three consortia that have been short-listed to be our partner in the Public-Private Partnership that would ultimately build and maintain the proposed pedestrian tunnel.

The purpose of this letter is to advise you that our design engineers believe that we can save approximately $2.5 million in construction costs if we were to build the proposed tunnel directly below the City’s dockwall, rather than “jogging” around it. The direct route would also aid those passengers with mobility challenges. It seems such a waste to spend an additional $2.5 million but for our inability to secure this easement from the City of Toronto. As per my letter to you of October 26, 2010, our engineers need formal clarity on the matter immediately.

Should the City agree to provide us with the proposed easement, we would naturally ensure that the dockwall’s structural integrity is maintained throughout the construction process, and would indemnify the City from any damage that might occur during the proposed tunnel’s construction, if requested. As well, if it was the City’s preference, we would also be prepared (even prefer) to acquire this specific dilapidated City-owned dockwall for a nominal sum on an “as is, where is” basis, and take on for our own account what we are advised is approximately $1.5 million of pressing structural repairs. Under the latter scenario, no City easement would be required to proceed with the “cheaper” tunnel route, and the City would no longer have the substantial financial and legal liability associated with this particular dockwall.

Almost five months passed after this letter was sent, and the easement still hadn’t been granted. You can imagine how odd that was. Here we had a Mayor who supported the airport, with a high profile job-creating construction project at the starting gate. A project that involved not a penny of taxpayer dollars, either. Surely that was a winner. All that was required was a costless piece of paper giving permission to build 10 stories below a City dockwall, rather than waste passenger AIF money to build around it.

In an effort to clear the air, two of us from the TPA Board had the “pleasure” of just one meeting with Mr. Towhey in the Mayor’s Boardroom at City Hall; and he turned it into as wild-eyed, crazy, pinch yourself kind of session as I’d ever attended. The date was June 3, 2011, and he was Mayor Rob Ford’s Policy Advisor at the time. The meeting was actually with Mayor Ford’s then Chief of Staff, Amir Remtulla and the City Manager, Joe Pennachetti. Mr. Towhey quickly took the tiller, however, and made it clear that he didn’t care whether or not the tunnel was built. He wanted his pound of flesh. There had to “something in it for the City.” It was like a moment from The Sopranos, but that’s just my opinion. (I can’t imagine how either of them put up with it all of those months.)

I talked about the tunnel construction’s direct job creation, as well as the broader positive economic impact of the thousands of Toronto-area jobs that were associated with Porter Airlines and Bombardier’s Q400 manufacturing plant at Downsview. We were just coming off a terrible recession, let’s not forget.

Mr. Towhey informed us that these jobs only created revenues for the Federal and Provincial governments, and did nothing for the coffers of the City of Toronto since it raises funds via property taxes. I pointed out that these 5,000 combined Porter and Bombardier employees are also paying Toronto property taxes, many of which were new jobs, and that the business and tourism dollars that flowed via the airport had to be of clear benefit to the overall City.

He wouldn’t hear of it. Mr. Towhey said he “didn’t care about the airport’s economic impact.” Somehow, it didn’t matter to his City.

On two different occasions, Mr. Remtulla tried to rein him in, but to no avail. Mr. Towhey appeared to have little concern about rank, despite his prior military training and Veteran licence plate. Then came Mr. Towhey’s big whopper. He said he “wouldn’t lose sleep” over the TPA spending an extra $2.5 million by building the $82.5 million tunnel with a dogleg around the City dockwall; nor “whether the tunnel is built or not.” I looked at Mr. Remtulla and said, “I could have sat in this Boardroom a year ago with Bruce Scott (David Miller’s EA) and heard the same thing.”

The meeting ended soon thereafter.

Mr. Remtulla chased after us down a second floor corridor and apologized for Mr. Towhey’s behaviour. I said that I couldn’t believe Mr. Towhey really meant what he said, and I certainly hoped the Mayor didn’t feel this way. Mr. Remtulla said he’d speak to his colleague. But, since he was the Policy Advisor, we wound up having to deal with Mr. Towhey for the next five weeks just the same. And boy, was I wrong. Mr. Towhey definitely meant what he said.

By combining a proposed City water and sewer main with the pedestrian tunnel construction project, many good things came to pass when the project finally got underway in March 2012. The City got to save money on a project that had been on the drawing board under David Miller since May 2008, and the neighbourhood avoided living with the hassle of an extra construction project. You’d think it would be easy, but it wasn’t. Mr. Towhey had convinced the Mayor that there “had to be something in it for the City” if they were going to grant this costless easement; even it involved an airport for which he professed his support.

At one point in early July, I told my wife that dealing with Mr. Towhey was like negotiating with a four year old who was sitting across from you while holding a hand grenade, sans pin. I never could be sure that he wouldn’t blow us all up, just to see what is was like. Or to prove that he could, being all-powerful and with no one to answer to.

It was so foreign to what one sees in business. No one ever gives you the impression that they’re just as happy if everyone dies, so to speak, in a business context. Success comes from getting to “yes”, not “no”.

As someone who negotiates every day about something or other at Wellington Financial, with hundreds of millions of our investor’s dollars at risk in aggregate over an extended period of time, I’ve never come across anyone as intellectually dishonest as Mark Towhey. And that says something. The tunnel was going to be built, one way or another. No City permits were needed. The idea of collaborating was for the benefit of all, but the tunnel project would go ahead just the same if no deal was reached with the City; just as if David Miller was still Mayor and controlling the City Staff and Council.

When it comes to Adam Vaughan’s fibs about the airport and TPA, you assume that even he doesn’t truly believe them. In Mr. Towhey’s case, he really, really, really didn’t care whether or not the tunnel was built straight, or with a wasteful dogleg, as a result of his brash pigheadedness. Of that he had me convinced.

Putting $2.5 million of passenger funds into a bonfire didn’t seem to matter a whit to him, which is an odd thing since many of these very same BBTCA passengers were also the taxpayers who elected Mr. Towhey’s former boss to City Hall with a mandate to put a stop to civic waste.

Which puts him in a funny spot on his radio show today. Not quite like the Little Red Hen nursery rhyme, though, since Mr. Towhey isn’t merely late to the airport party. When he had his chance to do something constructive, he did the polar opposite. Not because he was told to by his boss, mind you, but because he wanted to; or so it appeared. He lacks a single shred of credibility on the topic; but, that’s just another of my opinions.

When it comes to the “jet topic”, the issue he raises today is quite straightforward. The TPA has made it very clear that, as the airport’s operator, it will take no position on Porter’s Proposal until it is first considered by Toronto City Council:

As an independent operation, it is up to Porter to pursue its own business plan for the benefit of its customers, shareholders and employees. The TPA takes no position on Porter’s business aspirations.

For the past 30 years, the TPA has operated the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (“BBTCA”) based upon the terms of the 1983 Tripartite Agreement, and will continue to do so. The TPA will not consider any change of use to the airport until a determination is first made by the elected representatives on Toronto City Council regarding Porter’s proposed changes to the 1983 Tripartite Agreement.

The issue is, firstly, a political one.

As the elected representatives of the citizens of Toronto, Council is best placed to speak on behalf of its citizens on this type of issue. Certainly, 60% of Torontonians are in favour of bringing jets to BBTCA, while 37% are opposed. But that doesn’t give anyone a licence to intervene on behalf of the proposed project until the voters have “spoken”, via their elected municipal representatives. After all, they’re the ones who have to knock on doors next Fall and face the music, should they get it wrong.

During my speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade last month, I made the point in response to a question that it wasn’t up to the TPA as the airport’s landlord to promote a new business offering. That’s what the private sector does, based upon feedback from the marketplace. They have the customer and market data, and it’s up to Porter’s team to fulfill their business aspirations.

It’s no different than Oxford Properties staying out of Crate & Barrel’s decision to carry red plates versus green ones this Christmas season, despite being C&B’s landlord at Yorkdale shopping mall. Or a venture capital firm coming up with an idea for a new technology, and then trying to find some entrepreneurs and clients with the passion to make it happen. That’s just not how it usually works in the real world.

Certainly not in this case.

For a guy with the leadership and diplomatic skills of Attlia the Hun, Mr. Towhey isn’t well-suited to be giving advice to anyone on delicate matters. When it comes to Billy Bishop, I wonder how he’s going to position the TPA’s “failure to lead on Island Airport issue hurts #Toronto” when he himself once said it had no economic impact on the City of Toronto. How could a status quo airport “hurt” Toronto if the airport itself has no positive economic impact on Toronto? A quandary, that.

Not that I’ll be listening in, however. I’m having my hair done at that time. But in the unlikely event that you do, keep in mind that when he was actually in a position to play a constructive role on behalf of the 2 million people who use BBTCA, and the thousands who make their livelihood as a result of the airport’s rebirth, Mr. Towhey “didn’t care about the airport’s economic impact” on Toronto.

And yet, he sure seems to have found religion when ratings are involved.

(disclosure – this blog, as always, reflects a personal opinion, is written as an Opinion Piece, and in no way represents the views of the TPA, its Board/Staff or the federal government)

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5 Comments  comments 

5 Responses

  1. Brian Iler

    Mark, you cite a TPA-paid Ipsos poll to aver that a majority of Torontonians support jets. But that answer came after a host of questions designed to create a favourable impression of the TPA and the Island Airport. Not the way to get a reliable result, I wouldn’t think.
    And if people asctually informed themselves about the issues, by reading the City staff report, for example – found at
    http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2013/ex/bgrd/backgroundfile-64318.pdf – they’d be far more likely to agree that the jets proposal at least requires a lot more study, and more likely, like casinos and Doug Ford’s ferris wheel, should just be shelved as another bad idea for our waterfront.
    And maybe the TPA could have offered something of benefit to the City, as Mr. Towhey, rather clumsily, sought. Like paying up its $50M arrears of property taxes, for a start. Particularly when the TPA is entitled to pass that tax cost on to Porter.

  2. Brian Iler

    Interesting story about Mr. Twohey, Mark.
    Perhaps the “something in it for the city” Mr. Twohey so crudely sought could have been payment of the massive arrears of property taxes the Toronto Port Authority owes to the City in excess of $50 million, the City advises.
    One does wonder why the TPA is so resistant to paying its fair share of property taxes, since it would just pass along that expense to Porter in any event.
    Perhaps Mr. Twohey was concerned about the wisdom of the pedestrian tunnel finances: the TPA has bound itself to pay $6,583,000 per year for the next 20 years plus periodic Lifecycle Payments – a commitment totaling in excess of $131,660,000.
    Although you say lease payments will be funded by passenger levies, given Porter’s shaky finances (see John Barber, at http://torontoist.com/2013/11/desperately-seeking-jets/), ultimately public assets/taxpayers backstop that liability.
    And you refer to the TPA-paid Ipsos poll. Given that the question on Jets follows a host of suggestions of nice things the TPA says it has done, that poll is certainly an unreliable indicator of Torontonians’ opinions.
    It would be interesting to surmise how the poll results would turn out if those polled had been more fully informed on the issues – perhaps by reading the recent City staff report, at http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2013/ex/bgrd/backgroundfile-64318.pdf.

  3. Thanks for stopping by Brian

    As you know, senior City Staff publicly advised Council in July 2013 (http://www.rogerstv.com/page.aspx?lid=237&rid=16&sid=1030&gid=112623) that the $50M figure you refer to was “erroneous”. In the absence of the advice of the most recent 2013 DAP Panel, the TPA has paid 100% of its PILTs on the basis of the advice of the 2009 DAP Panel. A calculation that the City has accepted on account, pending the new advice.

    As for the Ipsos poll, the polling company has separately advised you that their work was statistically valid.


  4. As you know, the TPA paid several million dollars in PILTs, property taxes and gross revenue charges last year, and all prior years.

    My annual meeting speech (http://www.torontoport.com/About-TPA/Media-Room/Press-Releases/2013-Annual-General-Meeting-remarks,-TPA-Chairman-.aspx) outlines the TPA’s approach to managing its affairs around the AIF and concession topic. The pedestrian tunnel is an important piece of civic infrastructure, which will serve the airport and its passengers very well for decades to come.


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