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'City hall needs to be turned upside down,' Skakun says

Coun. Brian Skakun not satisfied with legal review of parkade cost overrun
City Hall
Prince George City Hall.

An independent legal review into the city's downtown parkade project that went millions overbudget didn't go far enough, Coun. Brian Skakun says.

Skakun said he still wants to see an external investigation into the matter by the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs. In addition, he believes the city needs to follow the lead of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District and request a comprehensive forensic audit of the city's finances.

"This report leaves a lot of unanswered questions," Skakun said. "Why was there such an effort to keep this information from the public and from council? Why did this happen?"

Skakun said he's not satisfied the $34.16 million final price tag reported to council – $22.46 million for the parkade, $597,138 to connect the parkade to the city's district energy system, and $11.1 million for water and sewer upgrades in the area and other off-site works – is the total cost of the project. The parkade project had an initial budget of $12.6 million.

The report clearly spelled out the timeline of what happened and raised concerns regarding the city's due diligence prior to signing the agreement with developer A & T Project Developments, Skakun said. But it doesn't say why the decision to withhold information from council was made and who made it.

"I'm extremely disappointed and frustrated," Skakun said. "No one has been held accountable. We (city council) can be held accountable on election day, as we should, but will no one on administration will be held accountable? That's absurd."

City council only has the power to hire and fire the city manager, he said. But once the new, permanent city manager is in place, "city hall needs to be turned upside down," Skakun said.

"It's going to take a lot of work to restore trust," he said. "People are upset at city hall, and suspicious. And you look at what happened here, they have every right to be."


Mayor Lyn Hall said the independent legal review was a fact-finding exercise, not a fault-finding one.

"I don't think there was anything particularly new, or (that) caught me off guard," Hall said. (But) it gives us some definite guidelines and some things to put in place."

City council has already taken actions, like changing the city manager's delegated authority to approve cost overruns and requiring regular reports on the use of that authority, to address the concerns raised in the report. 

The changes will mean council has greater oversight and there will be increased transparency, both to council and to the public, he said.

In addition, the city is hiring an external consultant to review the city's capital project management policies and is working on developing a whistleblower policy.

The review will look at every aspect of capital project management, from initial cost estimates to procurement, Hall said.

The city is using an external project manager for the new YMCA daycare facility being built on the parkade location, and is reviewing that as a possible strategy for the city going forward, he added.

"We're really focused on building a different system," Hall said. "It's a bit of a system overhaul."

When it comes to accountability for himself and city council, Hall said "history speaks for itself."

"I have been accountable," he said. "I have been in the role for six years, and I take it very seriously."



Coun. Cori Ramsay said the report offers a concise picture of what happened, and how the parkade budget got so far off course.

"I think it is a fair assessment of what happened. It is what the public deserves – it really delivered on the timeline of what happened," she said. "Unfortunately, it is a hard lesson, and a hard pill to swallow."

It's clear there was a lack of transparency from the beginning, she said. As a member of the city's finance and audit committee, Ramsay received and voted on the capital project report in November 2019 which showed the city had spent $16.37 million on what was supposed to be a $12.6 million project.

"When that report came to council, it was very misleading," she said.

In March 2019, city council had approved an additional $4.5 million for utility installation and upgrades to service the parkade and condo development, she said. From the report, Ramsay said it appeared to her that those off-site works were included in the overall project budget. Nothing in the report indicated that the parkade project had run millions over budget with another year of work still to be done.

But because those costs were approved under the former city managers delegated authority, "technically no rules were broken," Ramsay said.

"That city manager no longer works for the city," she said. "(And) I don't think I'll every agree to a cost-plus contract again."

Fixed-price contracts may be somewhat more expensive, but will prevent the city from incurring the financial risk like it did with the parkade, she said.

Coun. Garth Frizzell, who chairs the finance and audit committee and also received the November 2019 report, said the committee should have asked more questions.

"We didn't ask enough questions. We didn't ask the right questions," Frizzell said. "(And) we didn't get some information we really needed to make good decisions."

City council, and especially the members of the finance and audit committee, are stewards of the public's money, he said. It's a job they take seriously, and work long hours trying to do to the best of their ability.

"Even then, sometimes mistakes are made," Frizzell said. "Now we have to make sure it never happens again."

The City of Prince George now has "the tightest delegated authority bylaw in the province," he said, "But watch closely, because it's not over."



Coun. Kyle Sampson said he is glad the full details of what happened have been made public, so council and the city can move forward addressing the issues raised in the report.

"I was pleased to see I wasn't blindsided by devastating new information," Sampson said. "It's not exciting news, it's not good news... but it provides us good recommendations on how to go forward."

The report offers a lot of good, common sense advice for the city to act on, he added.

"I come from the business sector, and it's a no-brainer that we should put a (request for proposals) out," Sampson said. "We just need to do our due diligence and put best practices in place."

Putting a whistleblower policy in place to ensure city staff feel empowered to come forward if they see something that isn't right is import, as is getting legal advice on major contracts to ensure the city isn't exposing itself to unnecessary risk, he said.

Sampson said he's also not interested in getting into blaming individual city staff members still working at city hall, despite his concerns about the way information was withheld from council.

"It's really frustrating when it appears that you have been intentionally deceived. There was ample opportunities for this information to come to council..." he said. "I'm frustrated that it happened, but I am proud to be part of the team making sure this never happens again."



With the publication of the legal review, the public now has as much information as she does about what happened with the parkade, Coun. Teri McConnachie said. It's time the public had "the unvarnished truth" about what happened, she added.

"I'm pleased this is out there. The first step is to rebuild trust," McConnachie said. "This happened on my watch. It was too much trust, not enough questions."

McConnachie said it is clear that risk wasn't properly managed, and council was left out of the loop.

"This report, what it shows, is that there was several opportunities for council to be presented with truth and facts, rather than fiction and false numbers," she said.

Council shouldn't have to work this hard to get the truth from the city's administration, she added. 

The changes introduced by council should mean they receive timely information to make informed decisions, instead of waiting until the end of the year when "the bills are in the inbox" and the city has no choice but to pay, she said.

Council is working with legal advice to get the city's manager's delegated authority right. They are also looking to put the right person in the job, she added, so they can start moving forward with other important changes.

"One of the things I'm looking forward to is installing a new city manager," she said. "We're a rudderless ship right now."

The Citizen did not have time to reach out to councillors Murry Krause, Frank Everitt or Susan Scott for comment as of Friday evening.