Mistakes piling up for city council

An unstable, undetected layer of clay is to blame for a nearly $7 million cost overrun on the Haggith Creek bridge.

Turns out the political support enjoyed by this city council sits on a similarly unreliable base, if the outcry over the City of Prince George's drunken sailor spending and borrowing so far this year, while passing the tab onto local residents, is any indication.

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How quickly public confidence has eroded in Mayor Lyn Hall, the six incumbent city councillors and the two new faces in Cori Ramsay and Kyle Sampson. Just like a bridge on the Willow Cale Road that opened in March 2017 only to be closed five months later after cracks appeared in the asphalt.

This is what happens when, five months into a new term in office, there is still no action on campaign pledges to review the city's overtime policy for senior staff.

This is what happens when a 4.5 per cent property tax increase is passed down to residents with little to no apparent on city council's part to reduce municipal spending.

This is what happens when city council introduces a $32 million omnibus borrowing bill for 11 separate projects, along with tax increases over the next five fiscal years to cover the debt servicing costs, instead of putting the plan on last October's election ballot as a referendum question.

And this is what happens when having to borrow another $8.5 million to cover that bridge fiasco and to fix the sinkhole that wouldn't die at Winnipeg and Massey is met with concern by just two city councillors and "what, me worry?" shrugs from the rest.

Coun. Frank Everitt tried to gloss over the difference between the sinkhole and the bridge as "just an act that happened out there in the ground and we have to live with the results of that."

That's an apt description of the sinkhole, caused by aging infrastructure and a legitimate effort to deal with the situation with the cheapest, quickly solution which didn't work, eventually leading to an unplanned months-long project that eventually cost $1.7 million to fix.

But that description is completely wrong for the bridge project. Well-educated experts were handsomely paid to engineer, design and build a $3 million bridge that would work for decades.

It lasted five months.

Coun. Brian Skakun was left to state the obvious.

"In my opinion, somebody's got to be held responsible," he said. "We are held responsible every four years and in this case there is obviously some mistakes made."

Only Coun. Terri McConnachie agreed, referring to the results as "a debacle" and "simply unacceptable."

Lawyers have advised the city that it doesn't have a case to sue either the firm that conducted the geotechnical survey of the work site or the builder of the bridge. That doesn't mean the city staff overseeing this project can't be disciplined - up to and including dismissal if the facts warrant - for negligence, incompetence or both for their failure on this project.

To get to that point, however, would require an investigation into what went wrong.

City council has every right to ask for a report with answers and policy recommendations on how to prevent similar fiascos from happening in the future. Not only is there no investigation but in the end, Skakun and McConnachie joined their council colleagues in approving borrowing the money, rather than letting their vote stand with their stern words.

That investigation is essential since the bridge will still cost more money.

An improperly-sized culvert was installed that doesn't meet Department of Fisheries and Oceans standards for a bridge over a fish-bearing waterway.

At any time, DFO could demand the city to close the bridge, dig up that culvert and install another one.

Even if that wasn't the case, a look at what went wrong is warranted. Based on their annual budgets, a $7 million error in a city project is the equivalent of a $2.5 billion error at the provincial government level and a $14 billion mistake for the federal government.

Finding out what went wrong and how it can be prevented from happening again isn't a lack of confidence in city administration. It's the responsible act of a city council that holds itself and its administration accountable for its mistakes and wants to help prevent future councils and administration from making the same errors.

Too many mistakes too early in their four-year term from a mayor and council that seem reluctant to demand better of themselves and the bureaucrats has led to rapidly eroding public support, which will cost them for the rest of their mandate.

Like the bridge, these problems can be fixed but taking responsibility and ownership has to start now.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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