City Hall Watch
By David Broadland, May 2013
Was Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin accurately briefed on the financial state of the City’s largest-ever infrastructure project before the last election? If he wasn't, as he claims, why isn't he concerned?
Shortly after Focus went to press last month with my “The smoking gun & accountability” story, a group of 12 Victoria citizens sent letters to Victoria City councillors and City Manager Gail Stephens.
The letter to Stephens included a copy of an August 12, 2011 memo produced by the City’s Assistant Acting Director of Finance Troy Restell in which he reported that the Johnson Street Bridge project had accumulated $5.2 million in unbudgeted costs.
By David Broadland, May 2013
Queen's medals awarded by mysterious means; you might as well take one too.
THE OFFICIAL PRESS RELEASE from the City of Victoria’s Communications Director Katie Josephson noted that three City employees had been awarded Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medals. Josephson’s media advisory stated, “The distinction highlights the exemplary efforts of those who strive to make communities great places to live.” One of the Victoria staffers was apparently given the award for developing a City program as a part of his $106,000-a-year job. Josephson’s press release noted that Josephson herself had been awarded the medal.
By David Broadland, April 2013
Did Victoria City Manager Gail Stephens misrepresent the financial state of the Johnson Street Bridge project before the 2011 civic election?
By David Broadland, March 2013
Information obtained through three FOIs raises serious questions about how the City of Victoria's FOI office is being run. That office's attempt to block Focus' access to City of Victoria records last fall was misrepresented to City councillors, and the City prepared no evidence for the hearing called by BC's Information and Privacy Commissioner.
By David Broadland, February 2013
Have 200 tonnes of steel and 4600 cubic metres of concrete been concealed in the deal with PCL?
On December 31, a closed meeting of Victoria City councillors voted six to two to approve a contract between the City and PCL Constructors Westcoast to build a new Johnson Street Bridge. A week later, a press release issued by the City quoted Mayor Dean Fortin: “This is an important milestone in the life of this project. This fixed-price contract meets the design, project budget and timelines, and allows us to move forward with confidence on a project that will vastly improve cycling, walking and driving options to and from the downtown for generations.” Even councillor Geoff Young, previously a constant critic of the project, admitted on CBC Radio to voting for signing the contract, saying he had “grumpily” become a supporter of the project.
By David Broadland, January 2013
Will a couple of letters from high-powered lawyers awaken City of Victoria councillors to their duty to protect the public interest?
On December 19, 2011, senior engineers from MMM Group—the company providing the City of Victoria with project management on the Johnson Street Bridge project—met with City engineers in Victoria. A document obtained by Focus through an FOI shows that at that meeting MMM Group engineers expressed “concerns regarding the City’s approach to FOI requests.” City engineers present asked MMM to “send a letter to the City” addressing MMM’s concerns.
By David Broadland, December 2012
The proposed Johnson Street Bridge has undergone a quiet transformation in cost and quality since the referendum. So have the records of who knew.
City of Victoria engineering staff spent the first half of November considering the contents of bids submitted by three companies vying to build the new Johnson Street Bridge before deciding which bid to recommend to City council. Then, at an in-camera meeting on November 16, councillors gave them permission to negotiate a fixed-price contract with PCL Constructors West Coast Inc.
We only know that slim piece of information about what’s going on with the bridge project because councillors voted at the secret meeting to “rise and report.”
By David Broadland, November 2012
Is freedom of information already roadkill on the City of Victoria’s shiny new misinformation highway?
On October 9—my birthday—the City of Victoria withdrew its Section 43 application to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC). Some gift. With only hours left on the clock for the City to produce whatever evidence it had to support its claim that Focus and JohnsonStreetBridge.org director Ross Crockford were working in concert to crash the Johnson Street Bridge project headlong into the City’s FOI office, it chickened out.
By David Broadland, October 2012
We debunk the City's claims about why it is trying to censor Focus and we provide a more likely motivation for its unwarranted attack.
Leslie, David and Goliath. That’s what the City of Victoria’s application to “Section 43” our magazine feels like to us. A corporation 1000 times our size is trying to throttle us because we had the nerve to expose its mismanagement of a mega-project for which only a dubious rationale was ever produced. That project is now at the edge of failure, and Goliath is angry.
By David Broadland, September 2012
An engineering report obtained through an FOI estimates $34 million is needed to bring 16 City-owned buildings up to seismic code.
The contents of an engineering consultant’s seismic risk assessment of City-owned buildings obtained by Focus through provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act suggest the City of Victoria has been misrepresenting the financial liabilities it faces by at least $34 million. And the study’s findings lead inevitably to the question of whether senior City managers have been making rational decisions about how to manage the risk associated with potential loss of life during a seismic event.
By David Broadland, July/August 2012
Did the City get the “three green lights” necessary to proceed with building the Wilkinson Eyre design? It would appear not.
In a paper read to the Victoria Branch of the Engineering Institute of Canada on February 27, 1924, City Engineer F.M. Preston, who oversaw construction of the current Johnson Street Bridge in Victoria, left a little piece of advice for those who might follow. “The final cost of the work was 21.7 percent higher than the estimate,” Preston admitted to his fellow engineers, “and this has brought home to me that in future the right thing to do, when, as was the case of the Johnson Street Bridge, no money is available for preliminary plans and estimates, is to put a by-law before the people asking the authority to spend the necessary amount on preliminary work, and after these preliminary plans and estimates are prepared, to again submit to them a construction by-law.”
By David Broadland, May 2012
The City low-balled the price tag and is concealing that fact. With so much being hidden and costs likely to top $100 million, is it time for a change of course?
The whiff of scandal around the Johnson Street Bridge project grows stronger. One wonders what it will take for one of the die-hard City of Victoria councillors—the ones who have clung steadfastly to what appears to be a sinking ship—to jump before they’re sucked down with the wreckage.
By David Broadland, April 2012
Massive design changes to the new Johnson Street Bridge were withheld from City councillors prior to a critical vote.
AT A CRITICAL MOMENT in the special council meeting held March 15 to consider whether to keep digging the Johnson Street Bridge money hole, City of Victoria councillor Marianne Alto said, in effect, “Let’s keep digging.”
Along with other councillors, Alto had just watched a PowerPoint presentation by the City’s prime consultant, Joost Meyboom, the bridge’s architect, Sebastien Ricard, and the City’s Mike Lai.
Considered to be a swing vote on the question of whether to keep digging or get out and look around for what else might be possible, Alto declared she could now “understand” why the price had risen to $92 million. She told her fellow councillors she felt “grief” when she first heard the new price and earlier that day had decided “$77 million and not a penny more.”
By Sam Williams, March 2012
The City of Victoria's latest estimate for the new Johnson Street Bridge has risen by $16 million to $93 million. This shocking news comes just two weeks after demolition of the railway portion of the heritage bridge, making the less expensive option of rehabilitation impossible.
By David Broadland, February 2012
At Victoria City Hall, the truth doesn’t come cheap. Or fast.
BACK IN OCTOBER, Victoria City councillor Marianne Alto brought forward a couple of motions introducing the concepts of “Open Data” and “Open Government” to the battened-down-tight City of Victoria.
Coming as it did just before the civic election, Alto’s proposal was seen by some as an attempt to pull the rug out from under the new electoral organization Open Victoria.
I’m concerned about her proposal for other reasons. Firstly, it may create a public perception that the City has become more transparent without actually creating any greater access to the kind of information that defines transparency—the City’s internal communications that show how and why decisions are being made and who is making them.
By David Broadland, November 2011
City of Victoria managers create misinformation that makes them look good and lulls the rest of us into a delusional stupor.
Let’s start un-juking the stats in Saanich. Compared to Victoria, Saanich is five times larger in physical size and has 30,000 more residents. The average income of a Saanich resident is almost 50 percent higher than the average Victorian. So you would think that a bigger, richer, more populous municipality would also have a proportionately larger, more expensive civic government. But Saanich and Victoria’s budgets are virtually identical.
By David Broadland, October 2011
Was the early closing of the Johnson Street Railway Bridge staged to divert public and media attention away from a serious threat to the new bridge project?
Back on April 7 the City of Victoria suddenly announced they were closing the Johnson Street Railway Bridge after Stantec Consulting identified problems with the bridge. The City said repairs to keep it open for rail, pedestrians and cyclists would cost $120,000. Since this amount “greatly exceeded the annual maintenance budget for the bridge,” and because they were going to demolish the rail bridge in “early 2012” anyway, City council accepted their staff’s recommendation not to repair the bridge. Its closure shut off the main access route for cyclists and pedestrians into and out of the city via the Galloping Goose Trail and put the E&N Dayliner out of business.
By David Broadland, September 2011
A report from the scene of the crime indicates City staff loaded the gun, but the mayor pulled the trigger.
Documents obtained through provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act reveal the new Johnson Street Bridge project has barely got to the “preliminary design stage,” and has already undergone big downgrades in service life and sheer physical size. Even at this early stage there are clear indications the cost of the project was underestimated and promises are being broken in order to contain costs, without the knowledge or assent of elected council members.
Let’s start with broken promises.
Included in documents released by the City is a “Professional Services Agreement” (PSA) signed April 19 by Mayor Dean Fortin and Joost Meyboom, an engineer with MMM Group, the company guiding the City in their attempt to build a new bridge.
By David Broadland, May 2011
Why did the City suddenly close the Johnson Street Railway Bridge?
By David Broadland, June 2011
A seismic risk assessment will likely force the City to consider replacing the 133-year-old structure. Will City council and staff use the same strategy—spending millions to overwhelm all opposition—they used with the bridge?
By David Broadland, March 2011
The City wants its citizens to believe all is well at City Hall. Just don’t scratch below the yellow paint.
The awesome power of public relations as a tool for making civic governance work better for the governors than the governed was on full display last month in this city. On February 17 the City of Victoria’s Director of Communications Katie Josephson sent out a press release announcing reassuring news for city residents. Under the headline “City Wins Canadian Award for Financial Reporting for Sixth Year in a Row,” Josephson stated, “The Canadian Award for Financial Reporting has been awarded to the City of Victoria for its 2009 Annual Report by the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada (GFOA). This is the sixth consecutive year the City has won the prestigious award.”
by David Broadland, January 2011
What are they hiding at Douglas and Pandora?
In late November, WikiLeaks, the organization founded by Julian Assange, began distributing transcripts of secret American government cables, and that unleashed a torrent of discussion around the globe about the efficacy of government secrecy. But almost immediately, the high-minded considerations about how much government secrecy is tolerable in a democratic society were pushed aside by the question of whether Julian Assange’s condom had merely leaked or was purposely torn. The trajectory of human progress is a rather like the flight of a butterfly, isn’t it? We’ll get there, but not in a straight line.
by Sam Williams, November 19, 2010
The numbers the City presented for the cost of a new bridge and the cost to rehabilitate the current bridge were based on estimates done by Advicas Group. Those estimates were peer-reviewed by Stantec's Andrew Rushforth, but analysis suggests the numbers have been tweaked so the City’s high-end rehabilitation appears to be more expensive. We un-tweak the numbers.
City Hall says it will cost $77 million for a new bridge without rail on it and $80 million for what is now known as the “gold-plated” rehab.
I’ve been asking myself 3 question about these two numbers:
• Where did they come from?
Sam Williams, November 19, 2010
The City's Engineering Department suppressed information provided to it by Delcan about the lifecycle costs for the Johnson Street Bridge.
In preparing data for a presentation to Victoria City councillors in April 2009, Delcan Corp provided the City of Victoria's Mike Lai with 4 lifecycle cost analyses. The analyses showed the least expensive path forward would be to seismically retrofit the bridge, repair it and then do continuous maintenance and repairs as needed into the future.
by Leslie Campbell, October 2010
Why did the City delete the original Delcan report?
Last month, Focus writer Sam Williams noted that the same consulting engineer who is now telling the City that a refurbished Johnson Street Bridge would cost $80 to $103 million, recommended—less than two years ago—a complete retrofit that would cost only $8.6 million.
Admittedly the scope of the project has increased, but even allowing for meeting a higher seismic standard, the leap in cost is huge and needs to be explained in order for many of us to feel comfortable about how we vote in the upcoming borrowing referendum on a new bridge.
by Sam Williams, August 2010
The number of six-figure salaries has increased dramatically at City Hall. But are taxpayers getting good value for their money?
That Victoria City Hall exists in a kind of economic bubble floating well above the reality of the ordinary people that pay City Hall’s bills was confirmed in July with the publication of the City’s 2009 Public Bodies Report. Municipalities are required by law to list all positions (excepting police) for which remuneration is greater than $75,000. The City’s 2009 report showed the number of City Hall staffers making more than $100,000 a year jumped from 15 in 2008 to 50 in 2009. According to Statistics Canada (2006) only 4 percent of Canadians have annual income greater than $100,000.