What did we know and when did we know it?
And who is "we?"
That’s the question over a now well-publicized deal that the Rochester Ferry Company made with the Toronto Port Authority — the lease deal to dock at the Canadian port and use the terminal.
It’s fast becoming part of the story that somehow no one knew about the lease deal. And yet anyone could have known – if they just looked.
It started on Tuesday when Mayor Bob Duffy made his announcement to the press about getting the city out of the ferry business. Duffy said that his staff "discovered" a contract with the Toronto Port Authority that has the Rochester Ferry Company paying Toronto $250,000 a year for the use of the Canadian terminal. Part of that "discovery" was also a per passenger fee of $1 and a per vehicle fee of $3 charged by the Toronto Authority.
From there came an editorial on the community’s lack of knowledge about the deal.
Then a radio talk show host used the word "deception".
But here’s the thing – a short stroll on the Internet produced at least two documents in late 2004 that plainly stated the intention of the city to enter into a lease agreement with Toronto’s authority for the terminal.
One was the business plan authored by the then-Environmental Services Commissioner Ed Doherty. The date of the draft report is November 18, 2004. The first page of the report talks about how the Toronto Port Authority would enter into a lease agreement to allow Rochester to use its terminal (the plan talks about Toronto doing this deal with the forerunner of the Rochester Ferry Company – The Rochester Port and Ferry Authority). The document also includes a $200,000 annual cost for leasing the Toronto terminal (that’s on page 15).
Then came a December 20, 2004 review of the business plan by TranSystems Maritime Strategy International. This was the company hired by City Council to consult the city on the ferry business plan. On page 15 of that study, it lays out the agreement in far more detail. It states that Toronto Port Authority would get $250,000 (Canadian dollars). It also lays out in detail the passenger and vehicle fees that Duffy spoke of… it’s called wharfage or passenger use fees (and, by the way, the $1 per passenger and $3 per car fees are also in Canadian dollars).
So the Toronto lease agreements were part of two documents easily obtainable through the calendar year of 2005. Admittedly, we may not have seen any coverage of this deal. And who is to blame for that? Perhaps the press shares some of the burden. We knew about these documents. We could have pressed the mayor or any member of that ferry company board about the Toronto lease deal. And, yet, for whatever reason, we passed up the opportunity. Until now. Until the Duffy administration talked about the Toronto lease deal.
Put in this context this piece of the story is quite different. In fact, it sounds like a lesson for the watchers of the project. I spoke with Johnson a number of times in 2005 and never raised the issue. And there were times when the sole reason was the ferry project. It’s even harder to imagine that people sitting on the board of the Rochester Ferry Company didn’t have these documents in hand… and didn’t press that issue.
In his column on Thursday, Mark Hare writes that the information on the Toronto lease "may have been public information, but most of the public didn’t know." That is very true. And what does that say?
Finally, let’s put the information into perspective. The real story remains the over-arching arguments made by Mayor Duffy to discontinue the service. Of course, the real and vital question to answer was whether the city wanted to borrow more money to keep the venture going after two miserable years. A business decision, in the end.
So let’s stick to business. To the dollars and cents. Whether it was worth the risk or not.
The business value of the lease deal could be part of the argument — was it wise? Should we have agreed to it?
But no one can claim – or infer – that it was kept from the public.