Did Mayor Helps conceal a serious bridge design flaw from other councillors and the public at a critical moment? Only the expeditious public release of pertinent records will show what happened.
TWO BOLT-ON PLATES DEFACING THE FRACTURE-CRITICAL RINGS of the new Johnson Street Bridge aren’t a problem, according to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. The real problem, Helps stated in a Facebook post, were “a number of serious factual errors and inaccuracies” made by me in my story about the issue in the January/February edition of Focus.
Below her Facebook statement Helps endorsed comments posted anonymously on the social media site reddit. On reddit, anyone can call themselves an “engineer” by providing an email address to a computerized registration system. Helps’ and her Facebook fans were moved by the assurances of reddit “engineers” HollywoodTK and thisguy86 that there was nothing unusual about a new $115-million bridge sporting repair patches before it even opened. My own article on the issue, on the other hand, even though it is likely subject to the careful scrutiny of libel lawyers working for the companies and professionals named in the article, is, according to Helps, untrustworthy.
I will come back to Mayor Helps’ role in the City’s response to the issue, but first let me report on information that came in after publication of my original story.
Firstly, City of Victoria Councillor Jeremy Loveday confirmed that he had not been informed about the issue before he read our story. Loveday’s statement seems to suggest that Project Director Jonathan Huggett, a professional engineer, did not properly inform his client—the City of Victoria—about a significant structural issue that had arisen during construction of the rings in China. However, it’s also possible that Loveday is the only person at City Hall that wasn’t told.
Secondly, photos taken in Victoria show the work of cutting steel out of the rings and then adding the bolt-on plates took place at Point Hope Shipyard in Victoria in October.
Thirdly, engineers and experts in steel fabrication have expressed concern that the bolt-on steel plates will likely create a corrosion problem that could increase maintenance costs and shorten the useful life of the bridge. While social media comments have focussed on the way in which the steel plates diminish the structure’s aesthetic value, the plates may end up costing City of Victoria taxpayers tens of millions of dollars as a result of premature loss of use.
Professional engineers and steel fabrication experts that have contacted Focus have confirmed that the concerns we identified in our story are reasonable. Even with only one sentence of the Atema report that first identified a weakness in the rings during construction in China, engineers confirmed that at least partial responsibility for the issue likely lies with the rings’ designers, Hardesty & Hanover. Until the full Atema report is released, the full extent of Hardesty & Hanover’s responsibility for the weakness in the rings is unknown.
If the City had insisted on rings that did not have bolt-on plates, whatever additional costs were incurred would have been borne by the various parties to the extent they were responsible for the weakness in the rings. The extent of blame assigned to each of the parties involved is unknown.
What we do know is that Hardesty & Hanover’s Engineer of Record for the project was able to sign off on a cheap, bolted-on plate solution even though he was the Engineer of Record at least partly responsible for the structural weakness that needed to be addressed. The record of how all this played out needs to be made public since there seems to be an inherent conflict of interest at work in what occurred, with City of Victoria taxpayers coming out on the losing end.
Following publication of our story, a concerned steel fabrication expert asked Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (EGBC) to confirm that the addition of bolt-on plates to the fracture-critical rings needed to be approved by an engineer other than the Engineer of Record. The EGBC confirmed that such an approval would have been required and directed the expert to Hardesty & Hanover’s Keith Griesing, the Engineer of Record, for Griesing’s confirmation that such a review took place.
In response to advice from one professional engineer, we checked EGBC’s online membership directory to confirm that Griesing is a registered professional engineer in BC. The EGBC did not confirm his membership. Griesing has not yet responded to a request for information from Focus. The expert in steel fabrication told Focus, “I believe it is not necessary for the Engineer of Record to be registered as a member of EGBC provided that he is registered as an Engineer in a jurisdiction acceptable to EGBC.”
Lastly, we have learned that the public statements issued separately by Helps and Loveday—the same statements, word-for-word—were provided to them by City Manager Jocelyn Jenkins. Since Jenkins is not an engineer, the claim Loveday and Helps made that what we reported in our story as a “design flaw” should have been called a “fabrication challenge” had to come from Huggett. (Loveday has since apologized for not making it clear that his statement was copied from a briefing note. Mayor Helps’ has made no such clarification.)
The entire attempt to build architect Sebastien Ricard’s unproven design has definitely been a “fabrication challenge,” but the specific way in which a structural weakness had been engineered into the rings remains a design flaw until further, more complete information proves otherwise.
Aside from the important issues of safety, lowered life expectancy and diminished aesthetic value, there are other questions involving professional and political conduct that need to be examined. If it isn’t clear to you already, let me outline why the City’s characterization of our story as “a number of serious factual errors and inaccuracies” ought to be seen as obfuscation—a non-denial denial, as I predicted in my initial story.
The weakness in the rings was first identified on December 9, 2016 in China. At the time, the rings were still being fabricated. Reinforcing the problematic section of the rings in a way that would not create long-term corrosion problems or diminish the aesthetic value of the bridge was still possible. Since the cost of that refabrication would have been the responsibility of those companies whose work had contributed to the structural weakness in the rings, the best interests of the City of Victoria would have been served by refabrication. But that didn’t happen. Why not?
On the surface, it appears that no one in Victoria was told, so there was no opportunity for the City to consider its options.
If the City had been told, and it had insisted on refabrication—and why wouldn’t it?—who would have had to pay? Hardesty & Hanover and/or PCL.
Somehow, Victoria got a defective bridge and PCL and Hardesty & Hanover got a free pass. What happened?
Huggett should have been informed about the Atema report’s findings shortly after December 9, 2016. If he was, it’s not clear whether he even notified the City. The evidence that he didn’t tell his client, so far, is the absence of any mention of the issue in his public reports, and Councillor Loveday’s public statement that our story was the first he had heard of the issue. So let’s pursue—cautiously—the hypothetical case in which Huggett told no one at City Hall. What would be the implications of that? Keep in mind that Huggett is paid approximately $300,000 each year by taxpayers to watch over the City’s interests on the project.
If Huggett had told no one, the main beneficiary of such a concealment would have been Hardesty & Hanover and/or PCL. But Huggett’s client is the City of Victoria. If this was how things happened—Huggett telling no one—how would we expect a sensible mayor to act when the existence of the design flaw was publicized by Focus?
A sensible mayor would see that if Huggett had kept the City in the dark, that would have allowed Hardesty & Hanover and/or PCL to avoid the higher cost of refabrication as compared with bolt-on plates. A sensible, cautious mayor would, on first hearing of this issue, understand that Huggett’s apparent failure to inform her would require the immediate production of all the records that could show exactly what took place during the nearly eight months between the Atema report and shipment of the rings to Victoria. Otherwise, public trust in civic government would plummet. A sensible mayor would demand: “Release the records.” But that didn’t happen.
Rather than acting swiftly to push for release of those records, Helps parrotted Huggett’s statement, assuring the public that the real problems plaguing the bridge project were serious factual errors and inaccuracies in the observations of the guy who first noticed the bolt-on plates.
So, given that Helps is a reasonably sensible mayor who is perfectly capable of sniffing out corruption, we can likely reject the hypothesis that Huggett didn’t tell anyone at City Hall.
That leads us, inevitably, to the only other reasonable hypothetical possibility—that Huggett informed one or more officials at City Hall, and that between them they decided that the best course of action was to keep the issue concealed from Loveday (and probably other councillors) and settle for a quick, cheap fix that kept the bridge on schedule for completion well before next November’s civic election, bolt-on plates and all.
Let’s cautiously explore this possibility. As a reporter, I’ve found that when public officials won’t answer direct questions, they are usually trying to avoid public embarrassment. It’s awful to be publicly embarrassed, but public embarrassment is a powerful and legitimate tool that has been traditionally used to hold people accountable for their actions when they screw up some decision they had to make.
In preparation for my initial story, after Huggett declined to say whether he had informed the City, I emailed questions to Mayor Helps, including whether she had been filled in by Huggett on the issue. The questions were simple and could have been answered with a “Yes” or a “No.” I also asked her for important dates when things might have happened. The mayor did not respond to any of five emails sent over a one-week period.
Then, following Helps’ release of the Huggett-Jenkins statement on her Facebook page and her implicit endorsement of the anonymous reddit engineers, I emailed her a request to itemize the “serious factual errors and inaccuracies” she had referenced in her statement. Normally, a public official that makes such a claim would have proactively provided that information without being asked. That’s the process: We make a mistake, the official tells us about the mistake we made, and if they are correct we acknowledge our error. So I asked the mayor to make those mistakes clear.
Then something peculiar happened. Mayor Helps’ inadvertently copied me on a “proposed response” to my questions that she had meant to send only to Jenkins and Huggett and one other City staffer. “Do you see any downfalls in this approach?” the mayor asked Huggett and Jenkins. Later, realizing what she had done, Helps emailed me: “David there you have my response. Sent before my morning meditation and copied to you inadvertently. But truth may walk through the world unarmed. So please feel free to use what I have said.” She had written: “I trust all of the reporters at the Times Colonist. I trust all of the reporters at Vic News. I trust all of the reporters at CBC and CFAX. I trust all of the reporters at CTV, CHEK, and GLOBAL. This trust has come through hard conversations, good reporting and relationship building. I do not trust you. As such I feel that however I answer your questions you will use the answers to suit your own needs, not to serve the public good.”
Mayor Helps made no attempt to point out even a single error or inaccuracy.
The mayor’s insistence that Focus needs to negotiate stories with her before she will provide factual information is an interesting issue all by itself, but it’s not the issue at hand so let’s not be diverted by it.
Why wouldn’t the mayor respond in a straightforward manner and provide the “serious factual errors and inaccuracies”? Added to her failure to answer questions for the first story, my reporter’s nose tells me Mayor Helps is hiding something.
Here’s what now appears to me to be the most likely chain of events: Atema issued its report in December 2016. Huggett informed then-City Manager Jason Johnson. Johnson informed Helps and perhaps City engineering staff. Between them they decided to accept the quickest fix to the weak-rings problem and to conceal the issue from the other councillors and the public, perhaps thinking that no one would notice the bolt-on plates. Now the City is busily trying to hide their miscalculations and errors in judgement to avoid embarrassment.
If I’m wrong, and neither Helps nor Huggett have anything to hide, all they need to do to prove that is to release the full Atema report, the record of all Huggett’s communications about that report and the bolt-on plates, and the required independent third-party review of the proposed fix, if that was done. Then all local media can share that information with the public, which will then be better able to gauge whether the public interest—or a corporate, political or personal interest—was served by the actions of whoever was involved. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine. He has been, reluctantly, following the bridge issue for about nine years.