Secrets within secrets

By David Broadland, April 2014

More civil servants playing fast and loose with the public interest.

Although the Request for Proposals portion of building a new Johnson Street Bridge closed on November 1, 2012, what actually happened back then is still being unravelled. And that’s revealing secrets within secrets at Victoria City Hall.

Following the closing of the RFP, a press release from the City noted the process of evaluating the proposals by a four-person team could take “several weeks.” The council’s role in the process was outlined by the City’s Communications Director Katie Josephson: “Following the completion of the evaluation, staff will recommend to Council the selection of the preferred proponent and the rationale for the selection based on the set criteria laid out in the RFP.”

But the process was over as soon as the bids were opened. Only one of the proposals was within the City’s affordability ceiling. The timing of what happened after those proposals were opened, and what was kept secret about the bids, provides a window on staff attitudes at the time about the role of elected representatives at Victoria City Hall.

The three bid proposals were recently obtained by Focus through an FOI request (and reported on in detail last month; see here). We now know that engineering teams from all three companies found significant technical problems with the design MMM Group developed over a three-year period. Creating that design and ushering it through a cost estimate, a peer review and a referendum had cost the City $4.5 million.

Two of the bid proposals rejected the mechanical concept of MMM’s design as too risky in terms of cost, reliability, and repairability. Those bids proposed more conventional mechanisms for making the bridge lift, but their costs were higher than the City’s price ceiling would allow.

The third company, PCL Constructors Westcoast, rejected a part of MMM’s mechanical design and altered what remained in a way that allowed PCL to meet the City’s price ceiling. But that alteration also resulted in material changes that PCL expected would reduce the life of the bridge before major repairs would be needed. PCL admitted its proposal would create a bridge whose parts “subject to wear” would last only 30 years. Those parts included dozens of critical elements like rollers and bearings and support segments that, because of the way PCL adapted MMM’s design, would be difficult or impossible to replace. As well, PCL proposed to set the design life for the rest of the bridge at 70 years. A majority of City councillors had insisted throughout development of the design that the new bridge should have a design life of 100 years.

PCL’s proposal also included an untested “innovation” in which precision fabrication and machining of the two signature 50-foot-diameter rings would be replaced with 4000 gallons of epoxy grout. The grout would be pumped between hundreds of metal parts to—hopefully—provide a perfectly-circular surface for the bridge’s 1700-tonne bascule leaf to roll upon. But one consequence of that innovation would be that grouted-over steel parts would be inaccessible—and unrepairable—for the life of the bridge.

City councillors were called to an in camera meeting on Friday, November 16, 2012, ostensibly to get their approval to proceed with the project with one of the construction companies, though what they were told remains unknown. The following Monday, Josephson sent out a media release that noted: “Council directed staff to proceed to negotiations to finalize the details of the fixed-price contract in a closed session last Friday.”

Josephson’s press release provided no acknowledgment that the Mayor and City staff had already preempted council’s power to decide whether to proceed with the project. They had done that on November 7 by secretly signing MMM to a contract for an additional $9.1 million, which committed the City to proceed—regardless of what councillors might have said even if they’d heard the serious doubts raised about MMM’s design and the apparent risks associated with the only proposal it could afford. 

MMM’s contract wasn’t released until late December after being requested by Councillor Lisa Helps. The copy Helps was provided indicated the contract had been dated “2012.” The City has refused a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request to provide the report given to councillors at that November 16 closed meeting.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine.