The subject of sole source contracting in relation to Ascent — the city’s electric utility — was touched upon briefly at Tuesday’s council meeting and it’s a path fraught with danger.
For some time now Mayor Heather Jackson has been an advocate — along with former alderman Gord Campbell, who also sat on the Ascent board of directors — of simply awarding all job-appropriate contracts to the city-owned utility without proceeding through a tendering process.
For the second time this year Ascent has lost out on a city tender, in this case replacement of all street lighting with LED lamps. The winning bid came from Ingersoll-based ERTH, which came in at more than $600,000 lower than the Ascent tender.
Had the mayor persuaded council to sole-source this contract, city ratepayers — the ultimate Ascent shareholders — would have paid in excess of $600,000 more than required.
So, who exactly is the mayor fiscally responsible to, the ratepayers who elected her or Ascent?
Earlier this year Ascent lost out to another out-of-town firm in a project that involved replacement of light standards at New York Central ball park. Once again they were tens of thousands of dollars higher than the winning bid.
So why is Ascent getting beat on its own home turf?
We had a lengthy conversation this week with Ascent acting CEO John Laverty on that very subject.
“Part of what we’re going to do here in the next few days is we’re going to review that bid and see why there was such a discrepancy in the ERTH bid versus the Ascent bid,” John advised.
“Today I couldn’t tell you what those pieces might be but a review will tell me. It’s our competitive side that generates those (bids) and not St. Thomas Energy. You have to safeguard the amount of money you spend on behalf of the ratepayers.”
And what is his take on sole-source contracts?
“In reality, the city owns Ascent,” he stressed. “So why would you want a company you own to bid on a job you know you are going to do?
“Would it not be feasible to come to that company and say we need to do this project and you are our company, so what would it cost to do it through you?”
Fair enough, but who is looking after the best interests of ratepayers?
“That’s a good question and I think that is why there is that fair practice of tendering. I am caught between those two thoughts in terms of it’s a conflict for me.
“You already have this company and perhaps you approach it in a different way and say here is what we have budgeted and what can you do for that?”
A good compromise. Present a budget with the understanding Ascent must adhere — in reasonable fashion — and the tendering process can be bypassed.
Although there is the matter of the city’s procedural bylaw whereby contracts over a predetermined amount must be tendered.
“And while we had the opportunity to bend John’s ear, we plunged into the murky waters of potential conflict of interest when council members — in this case the mayor and Coun. Gary Clarke — sit on the Ascent board of directors.
What is the responsibility of those elected officials to ratepayers? Should they not be keeping these shareholders informed of situations such as the dire financial picture of Ascent in 2014?
And what is their duty to Ascent?
It’s a fine balancing act from the board room over to the council chamber.
“We’ve had legal opinions on that,” John advised. “From the legal perspective, they don’t feel there is a conflict. That they can separate their duties to the company as well as their duty to the city. That question has been asked many times.”
So, it comes down to the integrity of individual member of council.
“Absolutely. Don’t forget you can’t indicate to somebody they have a conflict of interest. That’s not my role as chairman of the board. They have to declare it themselves.”
Over the life of the previous two councils there has been no shortage of situations where a council member should have taken the high road and declared such a conflict.
A duty upheld on precious few occasions.
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Over-extended reach ultimately hobbled Ascent
Ascent CEO pulls the plug: resigns as of Sept. 30
From bad to worse over at Ascent
Ascent financial picture a shocker
A return to core business or fire sale at Ascent?
The London branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario posted the following comment with regards to the ground-breaking ceremony this week at the site of the new headquarters of the St. Thomas Police Service.
“What will happen to the current police building? It’s a very unique and interesting Modernist design — worth conserving and reusing.”
A good observation which prompted a call to city manager Wendell Graves who provided this update.
“Hopefully by the end of the year we will be providing information to council relative to what we need to do with the justice building. We’ve done a little bit of administrative work on it but we’ll summarize that for council. We need to have a game plan.”
Now known as the Colin McGregor Justice Building, will that name be transferred to the new station, to be located just west of the Timken Centre?
“There has not been any discussion about carrying the name over. That will be subject to further discussion as well.
The present headquarters was named after Colin McGregor, a 28-year-old St. Thomas police officer shot and killed in the line of duty on May 7, 1934. He was attempting to execute a warrant for the theft of a bicycle at a residence on Queen St. in the city.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Attack ads full of half truths, twisted words, deliberate innuendo … It’s disgusting, childish and not attractive in any way. No other work place would allow such conduct. Why do we accept it from the people who want to lead our government?”
Reader Helena Morgan Clark posting on the Times-Journal Facebook page and obviously frustrated — as are so many — with the conduct of the party leaders during the 11-week federal election campaign.
City Scope appears Saturday in the Times-Journal. Questions and comments may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow @ianscityscope