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B.C. Premier Christy Clark in Victoria,BC Thursday December 15, 2011.Chad Hipolito For The Globe And Mail

The mayors of TransLink's two largest cities – Surrey and Vancouver – say executives of the Vancouver region transportation authority should not be eligible for bonuses, and that the controversial reward system is a symptom of larger problems with the operation.

Surrey's Dianne Watts said there are other issues, such as policies on fare evasion, non-collection of fines, and the collection of tolls for the Golden Ears Bridge. She said she hopes a pending audit announced by the Premier will provide some clarification.

But she also said the timing is off on the bonus program, which TransLink has defended this week. Under the program, which dates back to 2006, executives are eligible for bonuses of 15 per cent of their base salary – 20 per cent for CEO Ian Jarvis – if they meet corporate targets.

"It's not a good time to be dishing out bonuses when we've got these issues at hand and we're trying to look for money to pay for a transportation system," Ms. Watts said in an interview.

She said there has been a lack of clarity about the criteria for bonuses and how many have been provided.

"The public doesn't have an appetite for people receiving bonuses when you go and ask them to pay more taxes," she said.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said mayors can't intervene because of the way the province has structured the regional transportation authority.

Premier Christy Clark made it clear this week that she opposes the bonuses, suggesting they are out of synch with the struggles of British Columbians.

Mr. Robertson echoed those concerns. "I'm not a fan of bonuses in this financial climate, but outrage over those bonuses should not distract from the bigger challenges at hand.

"The TransLink mayors' council has no control over how TransLink is run – the province took that power away and gave it to an unelected board," he said in an e-mailed statement.

Mr. Robertson was referring to 2006 reforms that established the current governance structure for TransLink, which has limited the mayors' oversight of its operations.

Mr. Robertson said his priorities go beyond bonuses to finding a funding model for new rapid-transit projects.

B.C. Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom said on Wednesday the province can do nothing about bonuses without changing legislation, and that his focus is to make the case against the bonuses with TransLink's chair.

"The reality is, unless we change legislation, these are existing contracts," he told CKNW, adding there is a "certainly a legal obligation to live up to those contracts."

The audit of TransLink will look for money in its operations to cover a shortfall estimated at $30-million required to upgrade the transit system. Ms. Clark has said the audit could look at the bonuses.

Mr. Lekstrom said he does not have an exact time frame for the launch of the review, but described the matter as "a time-sensitive issue."

TransLink declined on Wednesday to make Mr. Jarvis available for an interview, but he said this week that bonuses are tied to corporate goals and not paid unless those goals are achieved. He said they are necessary to ensure TransLink's executive compensation remains competitive.

While Mr. Jarvis has responded to the attacks in statements, he has not made himself available to the news media to respond to Ms. Clark's specific concerns about the measures being out of step with the times.