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Commentary on this morning’s Province article on TransLink salaries

This morning, the top story in the Province newspaper was all about the salaries of TransLink executives and the increases they’ve seen in recent years. So Ken Hardie from our media relations team put together the following response, which we wanted to share with all of you.

The blazing headlines in this morning’s Province newspaper on salary increases for some of TransLink’s executives gives us an opportunity to do a useful reality check on a number of fronts.

First, the information in the article came from TransLink’s annual “Statement of Financial Information,” which, as a public body, we are required by law to publish and make available to the public each year. This statement must list gross earnings (salaries and benefits) plus expenses for any TransLink staff member earning more than $75,000 per year, as well as a list of companies and amounts paid to them totalling $25,000 or more.

This is a level of transparency that is unique to us and to other public agencies, and over time, each public agency is subject to the nature and tone of the coverage we saw in this morning’s Province. Clearly, the fact that our salaries are public information is just one of the aspects of public service that we ‘sign up for’ when we work at an agency like TransLink. But there are others that the paper chose not to examine.

To be sure, the average person would look at the salaries reported and think they were pretty good compared to what the average wage-earner brings home. The Province didn’t say anything about the work and the pressures behind those salaries, nor did it report on the results that these efforts and those of all staff at TransLink and the operating companies have delivered.

A reasonably objective person would conclude that the paper’s failure to do this is kind of unfair to the individuals being profiled. More than that, they would believe that the Province has done a disservice to its readers by denying them an opportunity to judge for themselves if these people deserved the compensation they received.

These salaries have increased in the last five years because the people getting them have been given increasingly complex work to do. We gave the Province the fact that TransLink’s capital program has gone from about $750 million in 2002 to about $2.25 billion in 2007 as the organization has taken on more and larger initiatives to improve the transportation system. But they didn’t report that. We provided the Province with the fact that we have had many good people ‘poached’ by municipalities and other agencies, but they didn’t use that either. They might have mentioned that the salaries noted are a third to a half of the lowest paid NHL hockey player…but they didn’t.

Nor did the paper use other publicly available material to note that over this time period, these people led programs that resulted in a massive expansion of our transit system that now offers 1.1 million more hours of service per year and delivers 68 million more rides per year than it did in 2002.

The paper could have mentioned the hundreds of road improvement projects, the new Dollarton Highway bridges, the Golden Ears Bridge, the 204th Street Overpass in Langley. But it didn’t.

What insulates an organization like TransLink from this kind of coverage is the degree to which we build and maintain constructive and transparent relationships in the community. We do a good job of this, witness the fact that in spite of constant and critical media oversight it receives, TransLink maintains high levels of public confidence.

But we also have to take a big step back and remind ourselves of something important. The media in a free and open society does this kind of reporting. And there are many really bad people getting away with unspeakable things in other parts of the world where papers, radio and TV don’t have these freedoms. This kind of scrutiny is the price we pay, although public servants can be forgiven for thinking from time to time that they pay disproportionately.

The media must remain cynical, but we must remember that the classic definition of a cynic is one who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. By that criterion, today’s article is at the high end of the cynicism scale. At the same time, we must never, ever lose sight of our obligation to treat the public and their money they contribute with the utmost respect.

There’s an interesting side bar to all of this. The Province’s parent company has just announced a $1 billion write down in its financial results and staff there have just seen over 500 of their media colleagues across the country lose their jobs due to cut-backs. We can bet that more than a few people in the newsrooms are wondering what executives in their organizations are getting by way of salaries, benefits and bonuses in light of these results. But they have no right to see that information.

Ken Hardie


10 Comments

  • By david, November 14, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

    I hope the buzzer blog is not going to become a political sounding board to counter arguments in the media. I’d prefer to keep it about what’s happening in the transit system.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, November 14, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

    Good point David—thanks for the feedback.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, November 14, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

    Just had a few thoughts and wanted to add a bit more to my comments above.

    I too don’t want this to turn into a political sounding board to only counter media arguments. But, as you can tell, it is important for us to flag media coverage once in a while, if only to clarify information, such as this instance.

    In a way, this kind of post is actually a reflection on what’s happening in the transit system. Media coverage can influence public perception of TransLink, which can in turn have implications for the service we provide. If, after reading the original article, you conclude that TransLink salaries are exorbitantly high, then you might be aghast when you hear TransLink making public appeals for more funding later in the year. Which then might affect our bottom line and future expansions (or contractions) of service.

    But again, I do hear you about the Buzzer turning into a political sounding board, and I wonder if I might ask where you might want to see such responses to media coverage put instead. A different blog, like Drew’s media blog over at Vancouver on the Lines (http://vancouveronthelines.blogspot.com/)? Any other venues?

  • By Eugene T.S. Wong, November 14, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

    Hi.

    I think that it was good that The Buzzer Blog posted this information. It’s not what I would consider good news, but it is important and relevant news. I also don’t want to see this blog turn into a political blog, but we can’t avoid politics and other controversial topics.

    In the first blog entry, Jhenifer said that this would be a place to have frank discussions. That means that we have to accept the fact that some of these blog entries aren’t going to make us happy. That also means that we can’t criticize The Buzzer Blog when there are entries that we don’t want to see. Frankness goes both ways.

    That being said, I want Translink staff to get higher salaries, & I also want Translink to cut costs. So obviously, I have mixed feelings about this. What I am greatful for is the fact that we can read about Translink’s perspective.

    1 thing that I noticed is that the media never criticizes itself. The media criticizes all of us, public workers and non-public workers, to hold us accountable, but who holds the media accountable?

    Here are my suggestions to Translink.

    1) Let customers know when staff members receive more resposibilities. It makes sense that the staff took on more responsibilities, but I never really thought much about it, so it becomes “news” to me. If we read about these things earlier on, then it is like fire prevention, rather than putting out fires. That is, when the media makes a bad article, people will already be skeptical of the media.

    2) Be willing to focus on all types of jobs, so that we get the message loud and clear that all staff are getting more responsibilities.

    I’m not a public relations expert, so I only offer suggestions. :^D

    Thanks again, for sharing Ken Hardie’s perspective on this.

  • By David, November 14, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

    On reflection, I think the best approach would be to have the full article in the news release section, then maybe an intro to it on the blog and then a link to the full article – cover the main points in the blog. A full article like above would be okay from time to time if really needed.

    I really understand the need to respond – the media is pretty bad at sensationalising stories and cashing-in on perceptions.

    I also work in the public service and we have a really hard time attracting and keeping talented people. The reality is that if you want the best you have to pay for it.

  • By xl, November 14, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

    After reading this thread. I’m now curious to hear what they pay Jhenifer. Anyways don’t we all think she deserves a raise for all the hard work bringing us together?

    Now if she can only fix this bug where our email addresses is showing up on each other’s computer.

  • By Jhenifer Pabillano, November 17, 2008 @ 9:29 am

    Uh… much as I try to answer all of your questions, I don’t think I will be talking about my salary here! Although it’s nice to know you think I deserve a raise :)

    So, as always, it’s good to hear your comments on the post. And judging from your discussion, my thought is that, in the future, I will put up posts like these on the Buzzer blog, since they provide useful perspective. However, I will try to keep these posts to a minimum, and only when it is necessary to respond to something big in the media.

    If you look at the Buzzer blog’s track record so far, you’ll note that this is the first “media response” post I’ve done, and the other 43 posts on the blog have largely been non-media related. (The post about the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council is the only other media-related one.) So, the ratio of media response articles is not super high right now, and I’ll do my best to keep that up.

    Eugene, re: your comments, that is a thoughtful idea, but I am not sure I will be able to continually talk about staff members, their increased responsibilities, and other staff changes around here. I’m often not privy to all that information, plus there are other concerns like privacy to be thought about.

    But I take your point and it’s great that you are coming up with solutions that we could implement. And as always, I’ll do my best to try and keep you up with any key info that is coming down the pipeline, which will hopefully provide context to the news you hear later on down the line.

    Thanks again for the discussion, guys!

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