How can government be accountable for spending when elected officials are cut out?
This is my latest column from 24 Hours, followed by a response to a letter from Geoff Meggs...
You could argue that the No. 1 issue among voters today is trust in governments and elected officials. So does that mean taxpayers should be concerned about how our city procures products and services?
The City of Vancouver made changes to their procurement policy that resulted in less oversight by city council on how tax dollars are spent. A staff report submitted to council this week says that half of all procurement spending – about $47 million – is approved by bureaucrats and not by elected officials.
The decision to allow a committee led by Vancouver’s city manager to allow contracts up to $2 million each was only approved recently. Prior to April 2009, the bar was much lower - perhaps too low - but all consulting contracts over $30,000, and goods purchases over $300,000, needed sign-off by council.
The argument for the increase in limits was to create “efficiency,” and it certainly does result in fewer written reports for council to read. But if openness and transparency is what politicians like Gregor Robertson promise today, how does less accountability in spending decisions achieve that?
The changes in procurement policy followed an embarrassing instance of the City breaking its own rules just weeks after the last election. A communications consultant brought in to help spin the Olympic Village financial crisis was paid double council’s threshold for sole-sourced contracts.
I’m not suggesting that the City of Vancouver is being careless with their spending, but I wonder why we are stripping away that level of accountability by elected officials.
NPA Councillor Suzanne Anton – who tried unsuccessfully to persuade city council to lower the discretionary $2 million threshold to $1 million – says she also has concerns.
“City council’s job is oversight,” says Anton. “Not being involved in approving that $47 million is concerning to me as in the end I’m the one who is held accountable by voters. That’s taxpayers’ money, and council needs to be involved.”
If you think that Vancouver is not vulnerable, then look what’s happened lately across the country.
In Montreal, a $350-million water meter contract, it turned out, benefited a top official in the mayor’s office. In Calgary, the new “Peace Bridge” design contract was awarded without any competitive bids, and the adjacent land deal for a valuable city-owned property went sour.
And out in Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford recently dissolved the entire board of the city’s social housing authority over alleged misuse of public funds.
As I see it, the City of Vancouver over the course of over two years has become among Canada’s most secretive governments. During a time when politicians are talking about opening the books and becoming more accountable, why is it that Vancouver is moving in the opposite direction?
In the same Thursday April 7th edition of 24 Hours my column (read my previous op/ed here) appeared in a letter appeared from Coun. Geoff Meggs criticizing my previous column where I said Mayor Gregor Robertson had been silent during his term in office on support for a Broadway rapid transit extension. Meggs says:
Mike Klassen has it wrong, as usual. Gregor Robertson and Vision councillors have been working hard to win more transit investment for Vancouver – in addition to the proposed Surrey Rapid Bus – especially on the crowded Broadway corridor. First, Translink has to resolve the funding problems facing the new Evergreen Line to the Tri-Cities. But then it will be time to extend rapid transit along Broadway, where the number of riders jammed on buses already equals ridership on the Millennium Line.
In my column I said that Mayor Gregor has been "silent" and...
Since taking office nearly two and a half years ago Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver council have not said a peep about making Broadway rapid transit a priority. Meanwhile, in Surrey, you can hardly stop Mayor Dianne Watts from cheering on more rapid transit in her city.
Those statements are accurate. I challenge Coun. Meggs to prove me wrong. Watching City Hall as closely as I have, I've been unable to find an instance since Mayor Gregor has put on the chain of office where he has been a booster for rapid transit out to UBC. Furthermore, we know that Robertson skipped out on at least half of Translink's scheduled meetings of the Mayor's council.
While Coun. Meggs may think it's great to be boosting rapid transit outside of the City of Vancouver, I want someone in City Hall who puts the urgent needs of Broadway corridor commuters first. Mayor Watts is vocal about her city's needs, so why aren't we?
- post by Mike. Follow @MikeKlassen & @24hoursvan on Twitter.