Wednesday, February 23, 2011

City of Saskatoon withholding over 500 pages of River Landing Parcel Y documents; $131,090 blown on Lake Placid due diligence

Saskatchewan’s information and privacy commissioner recently issued a report slamming the city’s handling of two access requests, dating back to 2005 and 2006, for information relating to River Landing Parcel Y. The report was critical of the city’s decision to withhold over 500 pages of responsive records without providing an adequate argument or explanation to justify or support its position.

In its defense, the city claimed to be “very transparent” and “among the top cities for releasing information, for giving it without people having to go through the FOI process.”

This, of course, depends on the subject matter and the type of information being sought. Anything River Landing related seems to be sensitive. Since 2004, the city has denied access to records about the concept planning process for the area; the executive committee’s closed door decision to move the Mendel Art Gallery; the bogus Traffic Bridge public consultation process; and, the long running Parcel Y soap opera.

There’s more to transparency than releasing documents. How many people are aware that the city’s executive committee can hold as many as two dozen in camera meetings a year? Not to mention the police board or all the private administrative or steering committee meetings that occurs as well.

Concerns have been raised in other provinces that, to avoid unwanted scrutiny, many public servants communicate more with phone calls, avoid making notes, fail to keep minutes of meetings, and use email which they delete. Saskatoon is no different.

The south downtown concept plan steering committee established in 2004 did not keep minutes of its meetings, and neither did the city administrative committee that evaluated Lake Placid Developments expressions of interest and request for proposals for Parcel Y, or the concept planning committee that was set up to oversee the Pleasant Hill redevelopment project.

In late 2008 and early 2009, the city was involved in discussions with the provincial and federal governments about the Building Canada Fund and relocating the Mendel. Despite numerous access requests to all three levels of government, there appears to be little in the way of a paper trail. In fact, the city has admitted to not retaining copies of emails it exchanged with provincial officials.

Last April, the city hired auditors Deloitte & Touche to review the financial viability of the business plan to be submitted by Lake Placid pertaining to the River Landing Village project.

The public was led to believe that city manager Murray Totland would report on the outcome of the review at city council’s June 14 meeting. However, the plan was preempted when the executive committee, at a private meeting held May 25, decided to recommend that the city enter into a memorandum of sale for Parcel Y with Lake Placid. Totland’s report was shelved without explanation.

Deloitte was required to present its findings in a written report, but according to administration, the firm provided mostly verbal reports, and any written materials were not left with the city.

Deloitte submitted four invoices totaling $131,090.26, but the city severed portions providing details relating to specific actions undertaken by Deloitte in carrying out their duties.

Mayor Don Atchison declared it was the most due diligence the city has done on any land sale. And yet, Lake Placid ended up selling out to its partner, Victory Majors Investments Corporation, because it was unable to secure financing. The media failed to hold the city to account for the expensive disaster.

The secrecy doesn’t end there.

The city is also refusing to disclose three records that Victory Majors submitted on Nov. 1 indicating it has sufficient financing in place to complete construction of the development of Parcel Y to grade level, as well as six emails Deloitte sent to the city solicitor’s office regarding its work reviewing the developer’s documentation.

Deloitte’s assessment of Victory Majors’ paperwork was lukewarm at best, stating there is “plausible support of the existence of conditional financing commitments and conditional intentions to consider financing totaling $62.5 million.”

Deloitte warned the city it would “provide no assurance that the conditions of the conditional financing commitments or conditional intentions to consider financing contained in the documents will be met.”

Nobody seems concerned that the cost of the project has doubled from $125 million in Sept. 2007 to an estimated $250 million today, or that construction was delayed again and won’t start until this spring.

Saskatoon has a long way to go before achieving a meaningful level of transparency.