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An employee walks past transit buses at the Coast Mountain Bus Company Vancouver Transit Centre near Southwest Marine Drive in Vancouver on Feb. 2, 2015. DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

The Lower Mainland's transportation agency has demoted its CEO to a highly paid adviser, installed an interim leader, and promised to start a search for a permanent one, in moves local mayors say will help get a Yes vote in the plebiscite on a new sales tax for transit.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said the public had obvious concerns about TransLink management under CEO Ian Jarvis and that interim CEO Doug Allen will "bring some formidable leadership to the table, which is essential for improving TransLink's performance and ensuring that we get a Yes vote in this transit referendum."

That was a typical reaction from Yes supporters after the abrupt announcement Wednesday from the TransLink board about the management change. Even Transportation Minister Todd Stone joined in, saying there had been concerns about leadership at TransLink.

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The pressure to make a significant change at TransLink has been building for the last several months, as the campaigns have ramped up in advance of the March 16-May 29 mail-in vote among Lower Mainland residents on a new transit tax.

Board chair Marcella Szel said the agency will start an immediate search for a new CEO, while Mr. Allen, the man brought in by premier Gordon Campbell a decade ago to deal with the NDP's costly fast ferries, immediately takes over TransLink operations.

But TransLink's fiercest opponent says that shifting Mr. Jarvis to an adviser role and then paying a second hefty salary to a replacement won't fix any of the basic problems with the transportation agency.

"I think it's kind of cynical, to be honest," said Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

He said many other changes need to be made, from having open meetings of the board to eliminating waste.

"They've lost their social licence" and it will take three or four years, not a quick management change, to turn that around, he said.

News that Mr. Jarvis will be paid at least his $319,000 base salary until June 1, 2016, the end of his current contract, drew immediate criticism. Mr. Allen will be paid $35,000 a month to replace him.

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But Ms. Szel and others said there needed to be some immediate change to restore public faith in TransLink.

"Replacing the CEO is not a decision that is taken lightly," she said. "But we believe it is the right thing to do for our customers and for the future of this organization. We need to build public confidence in TransLink."

Ms. Szel said the organization will need a new leader no matter which way the transit-tax plebiscite goes, because the organization will either have to plunge into planning $7.5-billion worth of new projects or figure out how to serve a growing region with no new money.

Mr. Allen, a former B.C. deputy minister, a former board member of B.C. Transit and the B.C. Ferry Authority, and recently the CEO of the private entity that runs the Canada Line, promised to be a very active leader.

"I will hold people to account and I'll be extracting efficiencies at every level of the organization," said Mr. Allen, who has been working as a consultant. He said he regularly takes the 84 bus and will be on SkyTrain and the buses regularly to see for himself how the system is working.

Behind the scenes, mayors and strategists were pushing for some announcement about change at TransLink, saying the plebiscite had little chance of getting support without that.

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That plebiscite is asking Lower Mainland residents whether they agree to a new half-per-cent sales tax that is meant to cover part of the costs of a 10-year transit improvement plan for the region.

The vocal champion of the No campaign, Mr. Bateman, has pushed the idea that the vote is not about transit, but about TransLink management. He has encouraged people to reject the sales tax as a way of forcing the province and local mayors to make changes at TransLink.

TransLink has been a preferred target of Mr. Bateman for years. He has repeatedly hammered the point that its executives are overpaid, their car allowances are excessive, the agency has mismanaged the introduction of the Compass card, it handled several system breakdowns badly in the last year, and its board is secretive.

A prominent transit advocate in the region says those arguments have deflected many people from thinking about the benefits of the mayors' transit plan and encouraged them to focus only on management problems.

"That's the issue now," said Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor and director of the Simon Fraser University City Program. "I hear no discussion around the merits of the mayors' package."

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