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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