Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City hall's controversy on fire-paramedic halls not unique

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THE Ernst & Young audit of the city's fire-paramedic station construction project spreads the blame for the fiasco, although not equally, among the CAO, COO, CFO and fire-paramedic chief. It also takes broader shots at the legal services, finance, planning, property and development, and materials-management departments. What's missing from the tarring and feathering? How about the mayor and city council?

While council knew nothing about what was happening with the project for a period of years, the question it should be asking itself is why? Why would the members allow a system to perpetuate itself that kept them in the dark? It is a system that has been in place since the days when councillors, and even the mayor, were little more than volunteers doing what they called their "civic duty."

Councillors put in few hours in the past and were poorly compensated. Being a councillor was basically an ego trip. This changed after Unicity came into being and the size of council shrank to the now 16 decently paid full-time members. What hasn't changed, however, is the lack of knowledge councillors have about how the city is run and their involvement with the inner workings of the administration.

The trick of breaking up a project into small parts to avoid the need for city council approval is not unique to the fire-paramedic-station project. It has been going on for years and, while council has known about it and complained, it has done nothing to stop it. This has also been going on with consulting contracts. Once council changed the rules to have all consulting contracts over a certain value go to tender, more smaller-value contracts started being handed out for the same projects.

As well, the more than 20 per cent cost overrun of the fire-paramedic-station project is not at all unusual for a major city capital project. Contractors openly joke they can take on a city project at cost and still make a hefty profit with "change orders" and other upgrades made by the city after contracts have been awarded. Why can't the specifications be examined and firmed up before going out to tender? Who is held accountable for all the changes made after contracts are awarded? The answer is... nobody.

Another major problem with city projects involves too-narrow specifications that allow only a few suppliers to bid or a few products to be used. These rigid practices lead to high prices and very few bidders.

The danger with the Ernst & Young report is it may lead to even tighter regulations and result in fewer bidders and even higher prices.

An answer may be to open up the system by inviting wide-open proposal calls instead of too-tight specifications. Sure, a call for ways to cut grass in parks might see someone offering a herd of goats, but is that any worse than demanding that all grass-cutting equipment be green and yellow? A system where proposals and bid prices are examined openly might work. The keyword is open -- overseen by councillors but open to the public.

To be fair, councillors who have tried to get inside the departments and examine how things work have been criticized for meddling in matters beyond their capabilities and of trying to influence a decades-old system.

This "meddling" seems to work well for the federal and provincial governments. Those involved are called cabinet ministers and they take the credit, and the blame, for everything that goes on within their departments. Is it time for a similar system at city hall?

Such a scenario without the attendant party system might prove a little difficult to put in place, but having councillors openly in charge of certain functions would carry with it an accountability factor that has always been missing at city hall. As things stand now, there is no openness and very little accountability. They are spending your money to provide your streets and services.

Are you getting good value for your tax dollars under the existing system? Can you blame someone who is not allowed inside the system?

Mike O'Shaughnessy is a former Winnipeg city councillor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2013 A11

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