Westmount City Council: transparency in the arena/pool renewal project

This article was published as an opinion piece in the 2009-2-10 edition of the Westmount Independent, under the heading “Make phase 1 report public, larger arena benefits city“.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, a large audience heard Mayor Karin Marks explain that the report from the first phase of the contract to Lemay et Associés Inc. for design work on the arena/pool renewal project would not be made public; instead, details about the project would be provided to taxpayers in April, and a poll will be held to determine whether taxpayers wish to proceed with the project as currently conceived.

We also heard that the original concept of two NHL size ice rinks had already been downsized because of cost and space considerations. What we did not hear was a satisfactory explanation for why the phase one report was being kept under wraps.

Mayor Marks maintains that making that report public would be divisive, it would entail a great expenditure of energy on the part of city officials in responding to citizen questions, and it risks turning every decision into a referendum. She insists that the project needs to move ahead at full speed, given the current economic situation, in order to take advantage of the availability of stimulus funding and to benefit from relatively low construction and borrowing costs.

On this latter point, I fully agree with the Mayor. We should leverage our investment in Westmount recreational facilities by having a large part of the cost picked up by federal and provincial governments who are poised to provide infrastructure funding for “shovel-ready” projects. But I also believe we should be making the project bigger, not smaller.

The more economic stimulus, the better; the larger the amount leveraged, the bigger the advantage to taxpayers. But the most important reason for having the best and largest facility that we, residents of one of the wealthiest cities in Canada, can afford (always taking into account that we will pay only a portion of the total cost if the infrastructure funding comes through) should be apparent to anyone who has ever played SimCity: providing city amenities that contribute to a high quality of life attracts taxpayers, making even more tax money available for future projects.

Conversely, if we build an arena and pool complex which fails to adequately respond to the wish list put together by citizens at the consultation meetings in April 2008, we run the risk that citizens will “vote with their feet” and leave Westmount for other communities that provide better quality athletic facilities. Our tax base will be eroded, and the remaining residents will pay ever higher municipal taxes for increasingly substandard amenities.

Even worse, if the upcoming poll (which sounds like it will be an “all or nothing” proposition) results in the current project being abandoned, not only will the money already expended on initial planning be lost, and a subsequent project may be too late to benefit from infrastructure funding from the provincial and federal governments.

Additionally, I continue to disagree most emphatically with the city’s decision to not make the phase one report public. Because it has been paid for by taxpayers, it belongs to those taxpayers. Similarly, City Councillors and administrative personnel are employees of the taxpayers: we are their bosses! If we want the report public, it should be made public unless doing so would clearly be harmful. In this day of electronic documents and websites, it would take only a few minutes, and cost essentially nothing, to post the report for public viewing on the city’s website.

So why has the report not been made public? The Mayor intimates that doing so amounts to a public consultation which would be premature and costly in terms of time and energy. But since when is transparency in government the same as asking for public input? Does making information public automatically mean that there should be a referendum? Most certainly not! That would be “democracy gone amok” as I said in question period at last Monday’s meeting.

We elected our councillors to make decisions on our behalf, not to feel bound to ask us our preferences at every stage of a project. But governance does not need to be done in secret or behind closed doors!

As I stated above, I believe we need a bigger and better arena/pool complex, not a shrunken one. If the reductions in scope that Mayor Marks referred to are the inevitable consequences of properly performed feasibility studies, so be it.

But if City Council has simply caved in to pressure from groups worried about site aesthetics, parking and traffic problems, or excessive costs to taxpayers, without having adequately addressed those concerns, I would be greatly disappointed. I would be distressed also if the project was downsized simply to fit within a $25 million ceiling, a ceiling which appears to have been established without public discussion or input. Wouldn’t the subsidies increase proportionally if we committed to a $35 million project? I would expect that the phase one report would help me to understand the rationale for the revised approach.

Finally, I object to the implication that only City Councillors have the intelligence to properly interpret the (very likely) incomplete information provided in the phase one report. Making a technical report public does not include the responsibility to make it understandable to nontechnical individuals.

They will need to wait for the “massaged” version. But the architectural and engineering expertise in the community can be a useful resource to the city, in providing “second opinions” and additional perspectives.

Is it too much to hope that Mayor Marks and City Council take the important step of committing to transparency and openness?

Henry Olders, P. Eng., MD
Lansdowne Ave

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