Tank: Questions abound on taking politics out of city hall purchases
Posted on January 29, 2018 in In the Media
Removing the possibility and the perception of political influence when City of Saskatoon contracts are awarded seems like a good idea, but it’s worth taking a closer look.
On Monday, city council is set to give official approval to crafting a new approach for procuring goods and services.
The essential thrust of the new direction is intended to remove politicians from the decision-making process when it comes to awarding contracts. Decisions on who wins a bid would rest solely with the city administration, provided the contractors adhered to municipal policies.
In theory, it would end the possibility and appearance of politicians making sure contracts go to their cronies.
That sounds like a positive move, but it raises a few questions.
Do residents not elect a city council to vet spending? If we don’t pay city councillors to examine all spending, what are we paying them to do?
Nobody wants to see political influence or even the whiff of it when it comes to awarding contracts, but it’s questionable whether that perception exists in Saskatoon.
Since 2015, under new provincial rules, council members must declare any conflicts of interest at the start of council and committee meetings. For example, Coun. Sarina Gersher regularly steps out of council chamber whenever ride-sharing companies and taxi bylaws are discussed because her family runs a shuttle service company.
This approach relies on the honour system, but penalties are severe and the definition of conflict of interest has been expanded beyond financial gain for politicians and their families.
Council members are now required to reveal “any details that could reasonably be seen to materially affect that member’s impartiality in the exercise of his or her office.” The price for violating the new conflict of interest standards can be high, too, including removal from office and a 12-year ban from running in elections.
Changing the way the city awards contracts will also remove the opportunity for municipal politicians to ask questions about many spending decisions.
Coun. Bev Dubois has made questioning the necessity of awarding contracts for consultants her bread and butter during the current council term. Dubois says she heard much about the city’s spending on consultants during the 2016 election campaign, so she sees it as her job to question the money spent on outside advice.
Under a system in which council is no longer required to approve contracts, the opportunity to question such spending will be diminished.
That would be less problematic if the city administration adopted a more transparent approach to spending on consultants, for example. City hall staff drastically altered the definition of a consultant from 2015 to 2016 to produce a much smaller number, which dropped the bill for consultants from $18.63 million to $1.9 million.
Dubois says this approach is “deceiving” the city’s taxpayers.
The administration says third-party payments are documented and publicized each year — but they are categorized solely by amount and company name.
If procurement is going to be removed from the political process, a more transparent and specific approach to documenting spending seems to be in order.
Will removing politicians from the decision-making produce a better vetting process for contracts? Or will it simply eliminate another layer of scrutiny, the political one?
Take, for example, the Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. Council granted approval in 2013 for the administration’s recommendation to award the contract to EllisDon, which submitted a lower bid, $79,050,000, than either Graham Construction or PCL. The cost of building the gallery ballooned later on, of course — to the dismay of council and taxpayers.
Would more and better questions from council have produced a different result? Will council’s removal from the process make over-budget projects more or less likely?
Keith Moen, executive director of the North Saskatoon Business Association, appeared before council’s finance committee this month to argue that contracts should be awarded on “best value” and not just lowest bid.
City hall is aiming to have the new procurement policy in place by June, but it looks like some peripheral work also needs to be done.