The Grant Rant

A journalist's view from Niagara

If I have said it once, I have said a million times: Niagara Regional council never misses and opportunity to miss an opportunity.

You may recall, dear reader, that about a year ago the Region’s seemingly endless capacity to set fire to its own house, scorching the rest of us in the process, was laid bare in all its deeply troubling and embarrassing glory.

You see, some councillors had got to wondering how it was that the Burgoyne Bridge replacement project in St. Catharines managed to nearly double in cost to whopping $93 million dollars.

Their concern is reasonable. The bridge project had become a black hole from which no tax dollar could escape. So they did the only rational thing. They ordered two audits to figure out what went wrong and why. For a regional government that so often behaves like the political equivalent of Mr. Magoo, it was a good first step.

The first audit, released a year ago, painted an unflattering picture of the region’s capacity to handle large infrastructure projects. As I wrote in the St. Catharines Standard at the time , the report “tells a tale of such incompetency at Niagara Region that making things right must become the absolute top priority for regional council.”

The firm Deloitte audited the project history from February 2009 to November 2013, and found the process for the bridge contract administration and inspection services were not transparent, open or competitive.

That alone is scandalous, but it gets worse.

For instance, Deloitte found documents pertaining to the project’s Building Canada Fund application, the procurement process, and the awarding the preliminary design work to Delcan Corp. are missing.

So if you wanted to know why Delcan was chosen over other firms, well, your guess is as good as anyone’s because there are no records. You might think you could ask regional staff about it, but according to the audit, no one who worked on the file is presently employed by the Region.

The audit did not find evidence of fraud, but it did find regional staff didn’t have the skill set to manage a project of this size and that it did not institute basic measures of risk control.

Decisions were not communicated appropriately and the entire process lacked the necessary degree of transparency.

What was the result of this Three Stooges level of bungling?

The original estimated cost by Declan was $52.5 million. The low bid to build the bridge was $69.91 million and the project now costs more than $91 million.

Niagara could launch animals into space for that amount.

It is worth pointing out that while the bureaucracy through those five years carries much of the blame – the politicians depend heavily on accurate information from staff to make decisions, after all – the elected members of council don’t walk away with clean hands. Most members of this council were sitting in their chairs during that period, including current Regional Chairman Alan Caslin and his predecessor Gary Burroughs.

In short, the audit was a wake-up call for the entire gang at the Schmon Parkway to get its collective house in order.

So why am I taking you on this little trip down amnesia lane? The second audit, a forensic audit that cost more than $400,000, is about to come in for a landing. In fact, the preliminary findings were made available to regional councillors this week.

Well, sort of.

They got to read the report in a locked room for an hour on Monday. They had to sign in, and were not allowed to take a copy. Members of the bridge audit task force, which discussed the report behind closed doors, took no questions from their council colleagues about the report in open session.

Remember that bit from the previous audit about a lack of transparency? Evidently, the task force members skipped that part.

The task force says it has to keep the report secret, and intends to for the foreseeable future, because it contains information about solicitor-client privilege, potential litigation and “identifiable individuals.”

To be fair, there are some rules around releasing some of that information, but there is absolutely nothing preventing the task force from releasing an executive summary of the preliminary report’s findings. And given that report apparently contains allegations about the Burgoyne Bridge fiasco that could lead to litigation, releasing the findings of the report is not only important but necessary.

A few councillors were none-to-pleased with the secret nature of the report. Since they will be asked to make some decisions about the report Thursday night  – behind closed doors, of course – some wanted time to digest it properly.

Others, like Niagara Falls councillor Bob Gale pulled a full bah-humbug on the entire process and kept a copy of the report anyway.

“I’ve taken mine, and I did not sign the forms saying I will give it back right now,” Gale said. “The public is outraged by what is going on here. We should have these reports to take home to read … I have a problem with the secrecy of these reports. I understand the confidentiality of it, but we as councillors have to make informed decisions, and we only had an hour to read it.”

Even St. Catharines councillor Andy Petrowski got in on the act, pointing out the audit was done with public money and wanted to know when the public will have access to the report they paid for.

(Gale and Petrowski are both correct on this score, and regular readers of my column know that isn’t a sentence I write often. My fingers are only capable of typing those words in that sequence during a Super Moon or planetary conjunction.)

The final report is expected to be ready in March, and while task force vice-chairman and Grimsby Councillor Tony Quirk said the group would take questions from councillors at that time, it is unclear if that will happen in an open session of council or if the full report will be released to the public.

Come Thursday council should, at the very least, vote to release a summary of the preliminary findings to the public. Otherwise, it will simply prove that Niagara can have all the audits it can handle, but things will remain as opaque as ever.

NOTE: This column was edited to include the fact that councillors had a brief opportunity to discuss the report behind closed doors Monday.

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