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Ford team fills $100,000-a-year job without candidate search

Two members of Mayor Rob Ford's executive committee hired Gordon Chong, a member of the mayor?s transition team, to head the Toronto Transit Commission?s consulting subsidiary without conducting an executive search or interviewing other candidates

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fed Lum/The Globe and Mail

Although Mayor Rob Ford has often vowed to end sole-sourcing at the City of Toronto, two members of his executive committee hired Gordon Chong, a member of the mayor's transition team, to head up the Toronto Transit Commission's consulting subsidiary without conducting an executive search or interviewing other candidates.

As the new president and CEO of Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd., Dr. Chong, a dentist and former city councillor who collects a municipal pension, will earn the equivalent of a $100,000-a-year salary to prepare two applications to a federal public-private partnership fund for financial aid for Mr. Ford's Sheppard subway plan.

The first, due in June, will be a request for $250,000 for engineering and environmental studies. The second, for an unspecified amount that could become available later in the summer, would go towards the project itself.

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Dr. Chong, who's been on the job for two weeks and will fill the role on an interim basis, will also have a $500,000 budget provided by the city and the TTC to hire planners, economists and engineers as he builds a business plan to assess the viability of a $4.2-billion, privately operated subway.

Citing preliminary feedback from various financial institutions, he said it is possible, though not probable, that the expert studies will conclude the project won't fly. "We wouldn't have embarked on this if they didn't have a sense that it would have a positive result," he said.

He said Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd. is unlikely to make the business case public before it is submitted to the federal government.

Dr. Chong is the third high-profile member of Mr. Ford's transition team to find paid positions in the mayor's administration; the others include Case Ootes, now the sole board member of the Toronto Community Housing board, and Amir Remtulla, Mr. Ford's chief of staff.

Some critics characterized Dr. Chong's appointment, orchestrated by the mayor's office and approved by TTC commissioners Doug Ford and Norm Kelly, as a departure from the TTC's standard approach to hiring individuals for senior posts.

"Gordon Chong has lots of good skills," said former TTC commissioner Joe Mihevc (St. Paul's). Yet the agency traditionally advertises senior positions, retains headhunters to ensure the best candidates apply, and offers compensation packages based on the TTC's 17-level pay grade scale, he added. "Why you'd go through the trouble is because it's a fair and transparent process."

The mayor declined to field questions about the move during a photo-op Thursday. "I'm here to talk about graffiti and cleaning up the city and that's what I'm gong to talk about, with all due respect," he said. "I'm going to talk about what I want to talk about."

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TTC vice-chairman Peter Milczyn (Etobicoke Lakeshore) defended the Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd.'s approach, saying the position is an interim appointment. "He's not a permanent employee of the TTC. There's no pension and no benefits." However, Dr. Chong will continue to collect his pension as a former councillor.

A long-time North York politician, Dr. Chong is no stranger to transit policy. He was initially skeptical about former mayor Mel Lastman's bid to build the Sheppard subway but later supported the project. He has served as a TTC commissioner and, briefly, as GO Transit chairman during the Mike Harris years. In 2002, he spearheaded a provincial smart growth committee that recommended the development of a network of dedicated bus rapid transit routes around Greater Toronto to ease gridlock.

Shelley Carroll (Don Valley East) says Dr. Chong's experience at GO will likely help him sort out some of the governance issues relating to the mayor's subway plan, such as the contractual relationship between the private operator and the TTC, as well as an accountability framework. "All that has to be mapped out," she said.

But she also questioned why Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd. didn't follow the city's procurement rules in bringing him on board.

The city overhauled its purchasing rules after the MFP computer leasing scandal, but Mr. Ford, as a councillor, often railed against the procurement of goods or services without competitive tenders. He condemned council's decision to buy $710-million in subways based on a sole-source bid from Bombardier and pushed for more disclosure of small-scale purchases.

Since Mr. Ford took over as mayor, the city's record on sole-source purchasing has been somewhat mixed. The city is conducting a widely advertised job search to replace the two deputy city managers, and has put out a request for proposals for consultants who will conduct the looming $3-million service review.

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With a report from Patrick White

John Lorinc is a freelance writer for The Globe and Mail

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