To not be misled by experts into making bad decisions, elected officials need to ask hard questions. Voters need to elect prosecutors, not patsies.
IN MID-JUNE, City of Victoria councillors were given another update on the Johnson Street Bridge Replacement Project by Project Director Jonathan Huggett. They learned the project was experiencing new technical problems and were given yet another date at which completion might occur. Yes, that sounds just like the last update, the one before that and the one before that. But the real purpose of Huggett’s report was to show the City was including “lessons learned” from the bridge project into its next foray into fiasco avoidance. He delivered to councillors a report on fumbles made during that project which, hopefully, could be avoided if council’s decision to replace the Crystal Pool at a cost of $70 million goes forward.
I’m going to focus on a single lesson learned that Huggett unintentionally highlighted: the tendency of some current councillors, in their meetings with costly experts like Huggett, to ask questions or make observations that have little or no meaning or value, thus inviting meaningless advice from those experts—like Huggett.
Why do Victoria councillors ask so many dumb questions of experts? Who really knows? But the impact of not being up to sniffing out inaccuracy, underestimation, and overselling inevitably leads to millions of extra dollars of cost—and some hidden liabilities that one day may thrust themselves into the faces of local taxpayers.
Aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. At a critical moment in this project, did elected officials ask dumb questions instead of grilling engineers?
Following Huggett’s report, in which he laid the responsibility for everything that had gone wrong with the project on unnamed persons who were no longer sitting in the room, councillors spoke. Councillor Pam Madoff, who has been sitting in the room from the very beginning, expressed her view that she had done her due diligence on the project and, repeatedly, asked “how far” councillors had to go in their public oversight role in such projects.
Here’s an excerpt of what she said: “I remember very specifically having this conversation [with the bridge’s designers and engineers] about the mechanics, you know, the—in simplistic terms—the cogs, the wheels, how it was going to lift. I remember at the time saying, ‘Is this basically just a larger version of the Meccano sets that we played with as kids, in terms of its actual mechanical operation?’ And, again, that was the assurance. To me it comes down to: how far does one have to go? We felt like we asked the right questions at the time. It turns out they may not have been the right answers.”
If an elected official asks a professional engineer if a bridge is like a Meccano set, what should happen? Does the engineer say something along the lines of: “Well, you know, Councillor Madoff, a bridge is nothing like the Meccano sets you played with as a child. I’m worried about your question because it seems to indicate you have little understanding about what we’re considering doing here. I think we ought to postpone the rest of this meeting while you—and perhaps some of the other councillors—go back to your rooms and think harder about what your responsibilities are in this situation, and what questions you should be asking. People’s lives, scant public resources, the City’s reputation—all these could be put in serious jeopardy if you fail to provide adequate oversight of the public interest on this project. Is a bridge like a Meccano set? Well that’s the dumbest question I’ve ever been asked.”
Huggett, of course, didn’t respond so impolitely. Instead, he said: “There is no question that you were not given good advice.”
In much the same manner that previous experts had politely given City councillors bad advice, Huggett had just done the same thing. When you are collecting $20,000 a month for writing report after report about why the new bridge is still stuck in China—as Huggett has been doing since 2015—you obviously don’t bite the hands of those who are nervously signing your cheques. But Madoff’s unanswerable question about whether this bridge was like a Meccano set allowed Huggett to pile bad advice on top of older bad advice and yet appear to be sympathetic and sage.
Later, Councillor Ben Isitt—who I hasten to point out does not ask dumb questions—provided the meeting with his own list of lessons learned. One of those was about the “lack of public oversight by council.” He recalled an attempt by the City “to quash investigative journalism into this project.” Isitt reminded his fellow councillors that “in the autumn of 2012, just as we got reports that there were three bidders, only one of which was within the City’s affordability ceiling, the City attempted to quash attempts by Focus Magazine to file FOIs on this project.” (The City was supported in that effort by current councillors Madoff, Charlayne Thornton-Joe, Chris Coleman and Marianne Alto.) Isitt told the meeting the incident showed “the need for public oversight of council and the City administration.”
Councillor Jeremy Lovejoy picked up on Isitt’s point and asked Huggett, “Do you see lessons learned in terms of public communications on the project?”
Perhaps feeling uncomfortable by Isitt’s promotion of the virtues of Focus’ reporting on the project (Huggett has refused to answer any questions from this magazine over a 3-year period), Huggett responded to Loveday’s vague question by referring to “a long, semi-public debate about seismic design. It becomes extremely difficult to have a meaningful debate in the public arena about something as complex as the seismic design of a bascule bridge. I understand that it is legitimate…freedom of the press to raise these issues. But it’s a very difficult issue to debate. It’s highly specialized and, you know, I don’t think you would appreciate it if I told you I’d spent last week debating with a journalist about seismic design.”
Huggett didn’t actually answer Loveday’s question. The question’s vagueness allowed Huggett to provide, instead, excuses for why he never provided City council and the public with an explanation of why there is a rider in the bridge’s construction contract that will limit the liability of those involved in the project if the bridge fails to perform to expectations. To explain that rider would have been “extremely difficult,” “complex,” and would have taken a week of “debating with a journalist,” which, at the rate he is billing City taxpayers, would have meant a cost of $5000.
This could have been Loveday’s moment to shine a light on a critical issue of public safety and the City’s legal liability.
Focus first raised questions about the contract rider back in March 2015 after obtaining the document—Johnson Street Bridge Seismic Design Criteria—through an FOI. The document was secretly introduced into the project’s procurement proceedings in August 2012. The document stipulated much lower levels of expected seismic performance than had been recommended to the City by engineers. The City had earlier agreed to pay an extra $10 million for the recommended level of protection. Attached to the construction contract, the document would provide proof that the City had accepted this low level of seismic performance if the situation ever arose that the bridge was badly damaged, or people were killed on it, as the result of a large earthquake. The rider put all the risk back on the City’s plate.
In case there’s anything too “complex” about this issue for the reader, let me make a comparison between seismic performance and paint performance. Suppose the City had been advised to paint the new bridge with a type of paint that would last for twenty years, and suppose the City had agreed to pay the extra cost for paint that would last 20 years instead of, say, five years. Now suppose that after that agreement had been signed, Focus found out that there was a secret rider in the City’s construction contract that stated that the City accepted that the paint might only last five years, even though it was still paying for paint that would last 20 years.
Is that issue too “complex” for you to understand?
Of course, poorly performing paint wouldn’t jeopardize public safety, and a new paint job is a relatively straight forward procedure. With seismic performance, though, it’s baked into the bridge and can’t be changed without very expensive material changes to the structure. With seismic performance, people’s lives and huge financial liabilities to City ratepayers are at stake. In the last two years, geoscientists have confirmed that two active faults, capable of producing an earthquake more energetic than that which toppled the elevated highway in Kobe, Japan in 1995, lie beneath Victoria. The Devil’s Mountain Fault, which surfaces a few kilometres south of Downtown, actually dips below the City itself. Victoria has the highest seismic hazard of any Canadian city. This is a real issue that, if Victoria’s elected officials ignore or ask dumb questions about, will have a profound impact on whether people live or die when a big earthquake here finally happens.
So, before I get back to Councillor Loveday’s response to Huggett’s answer, let me pose a question to you, the reader. Would it be your expectation that City councillors should ask for an explanation of why that rider was inserted into the construction contract?
If your answer is “Yes,” you’re thinking like Councillor Isitt. When Focus raised this issue back in 2015, Isitt point-blank asked Huggett to come back to council with an explanation of the document.
Over the course of the following two months, Huggett did everything but what Isitt had requested: Provide an explanation of what the document was. In multiple reports to City of Victoria council and a media briefing, he provided an elaborate non-denial denial. Except for one brief reference to the document as a “memo,” his reports didn’t acknowledge its existence, let alone provide any explanation for how it might impact future liability for the City.
After it became clear that Huggett was scrupulously avoiding providing councillors with an explanation of the contract rider, Focus filed an FOI for his communications with the other parties involved in designing and building the bridge. The documents released to us by the City showed two things: First, that Huggett never asked the creator of the rider, MMM Group, for an explanation of why the document had been created. At least, not in writing. Secondly, we found that none of the communications between the engineers denied that any of the provisions of the rider were, in fact, in play. Indeed, the former City employee who signed off on the rider document, Dwayne Kalynchuk, confirmed in writing to Focus that the provisions in the rider had been incorporated into the bridge’s design and construction.
It should have been obvious to all of the councillors that Huggett had never provided them with an explanation of what the rider was.
So when Huggett went back to the issue in his response to Loveday and told him the issue was too complex, would require debating in public with a journalist, and would use up a week of his expensive still-delayed-in-China-reports time, Loveday had his big moment to act in the public interest.
To perform that service, he would have had to respond to Huggett something like this: “Hey, wait a minute, you never provided us with an explanation of what that contract rider is. Why was it created and how does it impact the City’s legal position in the case of a catastrophic event in which people are killed on the bridge or it can’t be used by emergency vehicles?”
Instead, all Loveday could muster was, “I agree that’s not how we’d like you to spend your time.”
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus Magazine. He’s been filing regular reports on the bridge project for eight years.