“Politicians and diapers must be changed often,” wrote Mark Twain. “And for the same reason.”
There is a timeless truth to Mr. Twain’s eloquently barbed observation of politics and, I suppose, a kind of comfort.
We are tempted, living the bubble of our present circumstances, to suppose the politics of our place and time is the worst history has ever fashioned. But the truth is politics has always been a stinky business, from the ancient Athenian assembly to the halls of the House of Commons.
In other words, we’re in the same mess we always have been in. And there is a special connections with our ancestors to be found in that.
I have been guilty of thinking of the present as being the worst of times myself. I suppose I have learned to expect the worst, that way there is always a chance I will be pleasantly surprised. And like any journalist, I chronicle the events around me as they happen, and that sometimes obscures where they stand in the long march of history.
In June, for instance, while writing about Niagara regional council’s endless fumbling when it comes to the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, I felt as though the entire Niagara community was the victim of an elaborate political prank.
“It is the only explanation I have left for what goes on at Niagara regional council that doesn’t involve a hypothesis of alien parasites chewing upon the brains of councillors,” I wrote. “Of course, such an idea is patently ridiculous. The parasites would likely starve.”
Still, while politics may forever be a business that attacks the olfactory senses, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest in some air fresheners.
By way of a for instance, consider the voluminous Deloitte Canada forensic audit on the Burgoyne Bridge fiasco.
You remember the Burgoyne Bridge? It’s that ever hungry gaping maw of infrastructure that never met a tax dollar it wouldn’t swallow.
Niagara Region has commissioned two Deloitte audits purported to explain how the bridge started with an estimated cost of around $50 million and will now cost more than $90 million.
The initial value-for-money audit ,released just over a year ago, shone a light on the Region’s inability to manage such a large project.
The Region “took on a project that was more complex and more sizable than things that had been executed by the Region in the past and used project management techniques you would’ve for much smaller projects,” (Deloitte’s Michael) Ingram said.
“If I was to give a comparative view: you hosted a dinner party and then opened a restaurant. They’re quite different and require a different set of skills and techniques.”
Despite questions from regional chairman Alan Caslin at the time, Ingram said no there was no evidence fraudulent activity. He did, however, point to a host of internal issues, ranging from missing documentation and a general lack of transparency.
“The issue for me is not that you paid a substantial amount more of money, it’s that there wasn’t transparency and the decisions weren’t communicated up the line sufficiently for people to have a complete understanding of what was going on at that time,” Ingram said, adding he did believe value was received for the cost.
The $500,000 forensic audit, kept secret by council and recently reported on in The St. Catharines Standard, is a different animal entirely. This time, Deloitte was given a very specific mandate by councillors to look at relationships between regional staff and contractors along with how contracts for the bridge, and a few unrelated contracts, were awarded or handled.
The report didn’t make any claims about criminal wrong doing, but did say that in three cases further investigation would require the assistance of law enforcement. The report also pointed to a host of potential conflict of interest problems, the deliberate manipulation of work orders, and weak hiring practices. All these area should undergo review, Deloitte says.
I’ll not dive into the full details of the report here. You can read about those in the Standard. What is of interest to us here, going back to our theme of the malodorous emanations of politics, is just one particular finding that highlights the rot that festers in the Niagara Region.
The audits were ostensibly undertaken to understand why the bridge ended up costing as much as it does. Neither audit actually explains why that happened, but the cause isn’t a mystery. Or at least it shouldn’t be.
After the original estimate for the bridge, a series of factors conspired to boost its cost – the soil around the bridge required different supports and it had to accommodate possible highway expansion, which extended the span and necessitated the arch. And the whole project was being pushed as fast as possible to take advantage of provincial and federal funding.
Councillors are rightly asking why the factors that ended up boosting the cost were not known at the time of the original estimate, but they were aware of the reasons behind the rising price. Or at least, should have been.
The forensic audit points out that data on the increasing costs of the bridge was included in staff reports to council, but tucked away in some appendices rather than presented more transparently.
The logical conclusion is obvious to a blind man: councilors didn’t read or understand the reports.
There is no doubt that regional staff blundered as only bureaucrats can by not simply informing council upfront about the changing nature of the project, particularly when those changes cost tens of millions of public dollars. That speaks to just how poorly staff functioned at the Region. That information should be given to council as a matter of course, and the entire process by which regional staff manages this kind of information needs to change.
That said, the information was there and council, it appears, missed it. At the very least, they voted for increased costs rather than slowing the process down and taking a second look. Maybe the bridge would have ended up costing $90 million anyway, but at least council would have control of the project.
In short, they didn’t read their reports.
Reading the forensic audit brings a scene from Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ to mind, when congressman John Conyers is asked why the Patriot Act was passed if so many politician had problems with it. Didn’t they read the bill, he was asked?
“Sit down my son,” Conyers said. “We don’t read most of the bills. Do you really know what that would entail?”
Makes you worry about the future of the species a little, doesn’t it?
In an recent interview I did with St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik, he said some councillors aren’t reading the reports they are supposed to vote on, relying instead on the judgement of the person sitting beside them – a person who may or may not have actually read the particular report.
“I can tell you that in my experience as mayor what sometimes happens in a council is that someone may say ‘Well, my seat mate must have read that report and is voting for it, so I will vote for it too.’”
While there is no question Niagara’s regional bureaucracy needs a serious overhaul to address some of the issues Deloitte found, the reality is that the buck has always stopped with councilors. Regardless of how poorly information was presented to them, they are duty bound to read reports and ask informed questions to protect the public trust.
Don’t forget, 21 of the 32 councillors currently sitting on regional council were there during the last term when the bridge project was voted on. Most of them approved the bridge, rising costs and all. No excuses, not the volume of reports, nor complexity of information they contain nor the part-time nature of their elected office lifts the responsibly from their shoulders to govern well and wisely.
If Niagara Region is ever to function in a manner that respects the citizens it serves, this council will have to reform its bureaucracy and hold its collective nose and take a long, hard look in a mirror.