Ontario ombudsman tackles Brampton city hall (Toronto Star)

Ontario ombudsman tackles Brampton city hall (Toronto Star)

May 25, 2016

25 May 2016

Procurement probe will be the first “systemic” municipal investigation under Paul Dubé’s new powers.

San Grewal, Urban Affairs Reporter
Toronto Star
May 25, 2016

Procurement probe will be the first “systemic” municipal investigation under Paul Dubé’s new powers.

Following years of scandal and a preliminary probe by Ontario’s ombudsman, Brampton city hall will be subjected to the first ever “systemic” investigation of a municipality by the province.

It will be a sweeping probe of the city’s administration, focusing on procurements, land deals and real estate transactions — the first of its kind since the province gave the ombudsman’s office broad powers to scrutinize municipalities, as of this past January.

But the probe will not involve a controversial $500-million downtown development deal that sparked the whole examination of procurement practices in the city, because that matter is before the courts in a $28.5-million lawsuit filed against the city.

Ombudsman Paul Dubé said Wednesday that, “During our review of information we obtained from informal inquiries, we determined that the issue of non-competitive procurements could potentially have systemic implications on the city.”

Mayor Linda Jeffrey, who led a council push for the investigation, said it is badly needed: “My goal here is not to be in a witch hunt.”

At an October council planning meeting, Jeffrey said she believed there were “questionable activities” involved in city land deals and that she wanted the ombudsman to investigate. Council had initially asked the province last year to investigate the 2011 downtown deal and other transactions initiated during former mayor Susan Fennell’s time in office, but the city was told to wait until the ombudsman’s office gained its current powers.

“We may learn some things that we don’t want to hear,” Jeffrey said Wednesday. “I was anxious to have the ombudsman come earlier. . . . We’ve been in the news for the wrong reasons.”

Jeffrey said that whether Dubé finds any wrongdoing or not, the investigation will give residents and potential private-sector partners confidence that Brampton is a place where city business, going forward, is done properly. “This is about a mandate that I received from the voters to do things differently. . . . This is about providing transparency and accountability.”

A series of Star investigations and stories between 2010 and 2014 included information that:

  • An event company owned by a close friend of Fennell, Scott Ching, who lived in a house owned by Fennell, received 453 contracts from the city and its agencies between 2001 and 2014, and that more than 100 contracts with a city agency, over seven years, did not use a competitive bidding process.
  • Between 2007 and 2014, the city broke its own procurement rules 302 times, including one $854,000 job in 2013 to renovate city hall offices that was handed to a company without any bidding process.
  • Court documents in the $28.5-million downtown development lawsuit, launched by a developer who claims he was unfairly disqualified from the bidding, include evidence that city staff, in 2011, authorized a $480,000 option payment on a parcel of land to help the winning bidder secure it, without council’s knowledge of the transaction.

(The city denies all the allegations against it in the lawsuit. The winning bidder, Dominus Construction, has stated it followed all the rules of the procurement process. There are no allegations against Dominus in the lawsuit).

Councillor Elaine Moore says she is disappointed that Dubé’s investigation will not include the downtown development deal, but she welcomes the probe.

“I personally reached out and provided information to the ombudsman’s office earlier this year, and in a conversation with them expressed my belief that the (downtown deal) needed to be included in the scope of any investigation they may undertake,” she said.

“Brampton taxpayers will not be well served if there is an impenetrable firewall between their investigation and the (downtown) procurement, most especially if a common and troubling theme emerges.”

Municipal procurement expert Stephen Bauld, co-author of the widely used text Handbook of Municipal Procurement, says the ombudsman’s investigation of Brampton is “about time.”

“This is what the ombudsman’s office should be doing. There has been such an air of mistrust in the community. . . . All the articles (the Star) has written about it and what’s been going on. In my opinion, it was absolutely necessary that this review be undertaken by somebody that’s at arm’s-length.”

Bauld said that he has been hearing about concerns in Brampton, in his professional circles and through the Star, for years. “This has been going on for . . . six years,” he said. “What took so long?”

He suggested that fraud charges could come out of the investigation.

“I actually taught a course for the fraud squad for the OPP. . . what constitutes municipal fraud,” he said. “Is it possible?. . . There must be enough evidence for them to do this investigation.”

Councillors John Sprovieri and Pat Fortini, both vocal critics of the downtown project, said they haven’t lost hope in Dubé’s powers to address that deal.

“Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, I hope the ombudsman will eventually be able to investigate the project,” Sprovieri said, adding that the imminent probe is good news.

“There has to be an investigation that clears the air. It’s the only way the city can move forward with so many unresolved questions that we cannot get answers to. We have to find out if there were any improprieties that took place in the past.”