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October 28, 2017 4:20 am

Consultants report – no headlines here

Thursday, May 14, 2015 @ 3:45 AM

There is an old cliché about the definition of an expert: Anyone from out of town with a briefcase.

For those who watch city councils, here and elsewhere, the cliché seems to hit closer to the truth than anything else.

We only need to look at the recent van der Zalm & Associates plan for a park behind the Wood Innovation and Design Centre. Taxpayers can, rightly so, question why we need to pay a consultant to plan some grass, paths, benches and playground equipment for a park. Wow, nobody here could have thought of that so we had to bring in someone from Langley.

While the issue of how much the city spends on consultants has been on the community’s mind for a long time, it was the $130,000 Mercury and Associates report into the snow removal fiasco of 2013-14 that raised the ire of a few city councillors. For the record, while the Mercury and Associates report was costly, it was a good report … one that clearly highlighted why the snow removal sucked and, perhaps more importantly, revealed that what the public and city council were being told didn’t jibe with what has actually happening on the streets.

The revelation that city staff dropped $130,000 on the report prompted Councillors Brian Skakun, Frank Everitt, and Garth Frizzell to request city staff prepare a quarterly report detailing what the city spends on consultants.

The first of those reports was presented to City Council on Monday.

It was, actually, kind of anti-climactic. There was very little discussion by council, which was likely due to the fact there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary other than the revelation that in the first three months of 2015, the city spent close to $230,000 on consultants. And, as it turns out, most of the work is actually engineering work that has been contracted out.

The two big ones were a $49,909 payment to IBI/HB Architects for the new RCMP building and a $51,800 payment to Opus Dayton Knight Consultants for a handful of projects dealing with waster water treatment and watermain systems. There was a $20,011 payment to McElhanney Consulting for slope erosion work and McMillan Creek sampling, a $20,244 payment to R. Radloff & Associates for four projects, a $15,794 payment to Architecture49 Inc. for work on the Kin Renovation and the 18th Avenue city yard building and a $14,844 payment to Tetra Tech EBA Inc. for a “civic facilities risk framework and condition assessment,” among others.

From a city perspective, pretty standard stuff. And so it should be.

Like it or not, using consultants is standard operating procedure for municipalities. That isn’t going to change. But there needs to be accountability and that’s what publishing the list of consultant work provides. It gives city council, and the public, a look at where and why public money is being spent. That is a good thing.

In addition, it makes those who have the authority to spend public money accountable for their decisions. No one is suggesting that city council, for example, has to vote on whether to award a $740 contract with NRS Engineering for the Civic Centre fire alarm design, however, city staff should be able to explain, and defend, the decision publicly to city council if they’re asked.

The quarterly consultant report shouldn’t make any headlines, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be there.

Bill Phillips is a freelance columnist living in Prince George. He was the winner of the 2009 Best Editorial award at the British Columbia/Yukon Community Newspaper Association’s Ma Murray awards, in 2007 he won the association’s Best Columnist award. In 2004, he placed third in the Canadian Community Newspaper best columnist category and, in 2003, placed second. He can be reached at billphillips1@mac.com


Thank you to Councillors Skakun, Everitt and Frizell for getting this kind of reporting started. You’re right Bill, it is all about accountability. And I think we can trust our Mayor and the City Manager not to “accidently” leave a name off the list, can’t we?

Good article, Bill! Thanks for sharing this.

In addition to costs, it would help if in each case the justification for hiring consultants rather than using city staff was given. Offhand, there are three cases in which it makes sense to hire consultants:

when city staff lack the necessary expertise;
when the city does not own necessary specialized equipment and it cannot be rented;
when there are concerns about the performance of the relevant city staff,e.g. that they are stuck in a rut, biased by local influences, etc.;

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