Is the City of Victoria considering demolishing City Hall?
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?
Back in late March, Focus asked the City of Victoria, through the provisions of The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, for any seismic risk assessments it has commissioned on City-owned buildings. We wanted to know if the City’s examination of the Blue Bridge’s seismic vulnerability was part of a systematic examination of seismic risk for City-owned structures. We were also curious about what might happen to City Hall and other buildings in an earthquake. A month and a half later the City told us two such reports had been completed in 2010 and that a third was in the works. The City then invoked a clause of the above-named Act which allows them to delay release of these reports until late July.
The Act seems to be designed to allow public bodies to postpone release of information until it suits them. It’s possible the City will, in late July, use another section of the Act to put off release until mid-September. And so on. But there’s an election in November and we thought Victorians would appreciate knowing about this issue, which could involve hundreds of million of dollars, before the election, rather than once it’s over. Think about how the Blue Bridge suddenly became a “must-do” right after the last civic election. The handling of that issue has left many Victorians questioning the City’s commitment to transparency and respectful public engagement.
According to the City, the report that considers what would happen to the 133-year-old City Hall in a seismic event was “complete” in December 2010. City Hall staff have apparently been sitting on this report for some time. Perhaps they’ve lost it. More likely, they’re shaping the version that councillors and the public will eventually see. What will that look like?
We can make an informed guess because we have the City’s recent Blue Bridge performance to guide us. The report on City Hall’s seismic vulnerability could take one of two approaches. It will either offer an unbiased version of the seismic risk, or it will exaggerate the risk.
What did the City do with the bridge? The City took the probability of a crustal earthquake occurring somewhere in this general region and added to that the highest figure they could find for the probability of a big subduction earthquake occurring somewhere along the coast. That led them to the conclusion that there is a 35 percent chance of a “major” earthquake occurring in Victoria within the next 50 years. They then extended that line of reasoning to promote the idea that there was a 35 percent chance the Blue Bridge would collapse in the next 50 years.
Independent engineering reports stated the bridge’s actual seismic vulnerability in more measured terms. For instance, Stantec put the chance of the bridge site experiencing a magnitude 6.5 earthquake at 10 percent in 50 years and a magnitude 8.5 earthquake at 2 percent in 50 years.
So, compared to Stantec, the City was exaggerating the seismic risk. That seems to be their style.
Given the tendency to exaggeration, here’s what we’re likely to get with a seismic assessment of City Hall: The engineering firm doing the report will look at the structure and condition of the building and initially state the risk based on probabilities similar to Stantec’s. City staff will then negotiate with the consultant, shaping a report that supports their own personal objectives and values, whatever those might be. If they’re not particularly interested in preserving a heritage structure, they will find ways to maximize seismic vulnerability and minimize the potential for rehabilitation.
This is what happened with the Blue Bridge. The first recommendation to the City from a hired consulting engineer was to repair the bridge to the provincial seismic retrofitting standard.(1) This recommendation, though, was ignored by City staff. In fact, they lost this consultant’s report.(2) In considering the bridge’s heritage value, City staff instructed the hired consultant not to engage with the public.(3) The City’s own heritage experts were shut out of the process completely.(4) When the engineering consultants hired by the City once again recommended the bridge be repaired rather than replaced, this time on the basis of the bridge’s significant heritage value (5), City staff ignored the recommendation. When the engineering consultants showed the City that repairing the bridge would be less expensive over a 100-year period than replacing the bridge, the City changed the parameters on which those life-cycle calculations were made.(6)
All of the above was done between the time the consultant delivered his first draft of the report and when the final report was made public. If history repeats itself—or if you can’t teach an old dog new tricks—then the City is right now shaping a final report with its consultant on the fate of City Hall. And that report is not necessarily going to be a straightforward presentation of facts.
The City staffer who told Focus the completed reports would not be released to us did say the reports would be “presented to Council committees in the very near future.”
The general outline of what followed the release of the engineering report on the Blue Bridge is well known, and it’s quite possible the fate of City Hall will be determined along similar lines. Information gleaned from the City through 14 FOIs filed by Focus over the past year has made clearer just how deeply the City invested taxpayers’ money to convince those same taxpayers of the need for a new bridge. Between August 2009 and the referendum in November 2010, the City spent $490,211(7) on so-called “public engagement” and other activities designed to sell a new bridge to residents. Much of that was spent on advertising in support of replacing the bridge in media as diverse as Facebook, transit shelters, radio and TV stations, and practically every newsprint publication in town. And a whopping $219,680(8), almost entirely for staff time, was burned through by City Communications Department staff as they devised various strategies to obtain public approval for building a new bridge.
Other costs incurred by the City to win the fight included $591,372(9) for studies the City said proved that rehabilitating the Blue Bridge would be more expensive than building a new bridge. But it’s arguable the City’s insistence that a retrofitted bridge be able to withstand an earthquake a thousand times stronger than the provincial standard for seismic retrofitting made this examination of options a laughable, costly exercise in public manipulation.
The integrity of the City’s claim that these studies were “peer-reviewed” is also questionable. The general understanding of a peer review is that it’s an independent review, done by a reviewer with no real interest in the outcome. But the “peer review” was performed by Stantec Consulting Ltd. Records obtained from the City show that between November 1, 2009 and May 1, 2010, the Jacques Whitford division of Stantec was paid $320,041(10) for geotechnical work it performed on the new bridge project. That was just before Stantec was appointed by the City to do the peer review. On August 18, 2010, before the referendum had been held and presumably before a decision had been made by the City to move ahead on the new bridge, the Jacques Whitford division of Stantec was paid an additional $43,389(11) by the City. Stantec does not appear to have met the criterion of “no interest” in the outcome. The 6-page peer review itself cost the City $43,809(12).
Between the “public engagement,” the questionable studies and the peer review, the City spent a total of $1,125,392 convincing Victorians a new bridge was the best option. The City provided no funding whatsoever to those who supported rehabilitating the Blue Bridge. Ross Crockford, who led the rehabilitation side, estimates $15,000 was spent fighting the City over the fate of the bridge between 2009 and 2010. The City outspent its own citizens 75 to one in order to proceed with a new bridge.
The City could do worse than to hold a public inquiry into its behaviour around the Blue Bridge public process. They claim to be adhering to the core values and code of ethics of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), but it’s very hard to see that in their conduct. I’ll give you a couple of examples. IAP2 states its number one core value like this: “Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.” But the City chose to borrow money for a new bridge without even consulting its citizens, forcing them into the streets to demand a referendum. That’s a far cry from recognizing citizens “right to be involved.” Under the heading “Advocacy,” the IAP2 code of ethics states, “We will advocate for the public participation process and will not advocate for interest, party, or project outcome.” But the City spent $1,125,392 doing exactly the opposite.They appear to have a case of ethical dyslexia. One can only hope the cure has already arrived and they will do City Hall differently than Big Blue. It would be very refreshing to see the City invite the public into the discussion right at the beginning.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.
1. Email from Joost Meyboom to Mike Lai Nov 21, 2008. 2. Email from City to Focus stating this report could not be found. 3. Email from Mike Lai to Delcan’s Mark Mulvihill. 4. Private conversation between a City employee and Focus. 5. Email from Mark Mulvihill to Mike Lai Mar 30, 2009. 6. Emails between Delcan’s Hugh Hawk and Mike Lai April 14, 2009. 7. JSB work order details for various sub-ledgers from City ledger. 8. JSB Communications Costs work order detail from City ledger. 9. JSB Rehab/Technical Work work order details from City ledger. 10 & 11. JSB Design/Construction work order details from City ledger. 12. JSB Peer Review work order details from City ledger. Download any of these document from the list below.