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Transit-planning gridlock as TTC general manager sacked

Gary Webster arrives for a special meeting Feb. 21. 2012, at Toronto City Hall to discuss his future as head of the TTC.

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

The country's largest transit system is without a leader or a clear plan for how to spend $8.4-billion in provincial funding even as the Premier warned Toronto politicians there is no more time for debate.

TTC commissioners voted five to four on Tuesday to sack chief general manager Gary Webster without cause after a three-hour emergency closed-door session arranged by allies of the mayor. The decision was made over the objections of TTC chair Karen Stintz, and comes two weeks after Mr. Webster outlined the virtues of light rail lines over subways during a special council debate.

Mr. Webster's ouster further highlights the gridlock over transit planning. Mayor Rob Ford came to office on a pledge to build subways and has vowed to fulfill it even without council support. Councillors on the commission who are loyal to the mayor hold the balance of power on the TTC commission. However, Ms. Stintz and the majority of city councillors voted in favour of a plan to build above-ground light rail on Finch Avenue West and along Eglinton Avenue east and to consider options for Sheppard Avenue.

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Speaking before Tuesday's TTC meeting, Premier Dalton McGuinty said the time for debating is over. "We're running out of patience. I think the people of Toronto are running out of patience," he told reporters.

"I think the time for talk is coming to an end," he said. "I think the time has come for us to build public transit in a way that serves the people of Toronto." It is unlikely that the province will decide how the transit funding will be used until city council receives a report on options for Sheppard Avenue next month.

Councillors who supported Mr. Webster's departure said his fate was sealed when he openly disagreed with the mayor. "This is not uncommon," said Frank Di Giorgio. "I can't think of one mayor not only in the City of Toronto but probably in any municipality across Ontario where they haven't run across this kind of situation," he told the meeting. Councillors Denzil Minnan-Wong, Norm Kelly, Vince Crisanti and Cesar Palacio also supported Mr. Webster's firing.

Mayor Ford was quick to endorse the commission's decision. "The time is right for a new leader to take the reins at TTC," he said in a statement.

Ms. Stintz, a steadfast defender of Mr. Webster, said the major challenge for the commission will be to find a way to move forward after his departure.

"These have been difficult days and difficult decisions," she said after the meeting. "We heard from the Premier that he wants to know who is in charge, and the commission needs to send a message to the Premier that we are committed to the $8.4-billion for transit expansion," she said.

Earlier in the day, Ms. Stintz pegged the cost of ending Mr. Webster's contract at $500,000, but refused to discuss the payout after the meeting. A 36-year veteran of the TTC, Mr. Webster was due to retire in July of next year.

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Mr. Webster faced a wall of reporters and cameras as he appeared briefly after the meeting.

"I just want to say very clearly that this is not how I expected it to end or how I wanted it to end, but clearly the choice has been made to replace me as the chief general manager and I accept that," he said. "I want it to be clear that I am very proud of the Toronto Transit Commission."

Councillor Maria Augimeri, who joined Ms. Stintz and councillors John Parker and Peter Milczyn in opposing the move, said it will resonate with all staff. "What message are you sending to the rest of our employees – that professionals get kicked out the door and that toadyism wins?" she asked the commission. "You are sending a message that leadership doesn't count."

TTC chief operating officer Andy Byford, the second in command who arrived in Toronto from Australia in November, will assume Mr. Webster's responsibilities during the search for his replacement.

"My focus will remain on the day-to-day running of the TTC," Mr. Byford said when asked about his interest in the top job.

With files from Karen Howlett

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