In July, 2021, then Director of Parks and Recreation Kevin Hill and Recreation Chair Tom Sidney, now the mayor of Renfrew, chat at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Ma-te-Way expansion. The original project cost was budgeted at $16.1 million but when the contract was signed that figure jumped to $18.9 million and since it has exceeded $35 million leaving the Town of Renfrew deeply in debt.Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Renfrew – Renfrew council voted unanimously to have a third-party conduct a forensic audit of the entire scope of the Ma-te-Way expansion project to determine if there are grounds for criminal charges after the original budget of $18.1 million doubled to $35 million. 

The announcement came at the end of a 12-hour workday that included a four-hour closed council meeting to review a scathing report of the entire project and the series of failures by senior staff and council that contributed to what many observers call a financial disaster.

The Ma-Te-Way Third Party Review: Draft Final Report, highlighted six areas that were the root causes of the $17 million overage and the complete breakdown of any responsible government oversight that would have spared the 8,100 residents of Renfrew a major financial burden. 

“So, how did we get here and what were the root causes that led to the problems?,” Tammy Carruthers of WCSD Consulting began. “We identified six areas that are governance: people (management teams and in central oversight); external environment (weather, COVID, etc.); measures and systems (how they were not used); material policies and the methods and processes that were not adhered to.”

She pointed out residents may be looking at decades of increased property taxes as Renfrew’s new recreational complex created a $17 million deficit and it is estimated the annual operating cost of the new complex will be $925,000. 

That estimated single line item in any future budgets represents a 9.2 percent levy increase as the starting point for future budget workshops.

She also informed council during the pre-construction phase it was discovered standard procurement procedures were ignored by the former recreation director, Kevin Hill, after he was delegated by council to run the multi-million construction project. 

She said RFPs and tender results did not follow an open public procurement process. The tender/RFP evaluation criteria usually involves two or three stakeholders working together using an agreed upon grading system based on industry standards.

Usual practice also includes publication of the successful bidders who were awarded a contract and it is standard to publish all results within the competition. 

Ms. Carruthers said the town had procurement and tendering policies in place, but they were generally ignored. In addition, the former recreation director did not publicly advertise potential RFPs and instead chose firms he had worked with previously or those that were preapproved. 

There was little accountability because Mr. Hill delivered the majority of his reports verbally, and despite requests from council members to produce the scoring criteria and written decisions, he rarely followed up on the requests.

John Skorobohacz, the second consultant retained by the town, laid some of the blame on all of the previouscouncil for their failure to demand accountability in the form of accurate and timely written reports.

“Many reports to Ad Hoc, PR Committee and council were verbal, in emails and not in writing as required by the Procedural By-law,” he told council. “This was not enforced by the chairs or the clerk. There was a sense of favouritism for the former rec director.”

Council Members Demand Accountability

This was the second appearance of the consultants before council. The inaugural December 19 presentation was the first time the Ma-te-Way debacle was on full public display. The shocking revelations led to a vote of non-confidence in Mayor Tom Sidney’s leadership. 

Four new councillors (Andrew Dick, John McDonald, Jason Legris and Clint McWhirter) argued his failure to immediately update the newly-sworn in council members and develop a strategy to address the budgetary crisis was a failure of leadership.

It was in that context that Coun. Legris, who was appointed chair of the newly-created Ma-te-Way Working group, chaired the five-hour public meeting. While Ms. Carruthers presented the report containing countless examples of violations of town policies, Coun. Legris began a delicate balancing act between allowing Ms. Carruthers to get through the report uninterrupted while recognizing some fellow council members wanted to address the public whenever possible.

Coun. McDonald asked the consultants if Mr. Hill was the only individual who was alleged to have violated several town policies or if there are more who share the blame and what can be done to ensure they are held accountable. 

He and other councillors appeared surprised when Mr. Skorobohacz said the former council as a whole must share the blame for the lack of oversight. He said council’s reluctance to demand only written reports from all the directors providing an update before council created a negative work culture among the senior management team.

“I would never have accepted a verbal report with no written record because that is not doing due diligence to protect the trust of the local ratepayers as council was elected to make educated and transparent decisions,” he said.

Ms. Carruthers said the policy violations took place in several areas including conflict-of-Interest; procurement and purchasing; financial accountability; by-laws detailing the use of written reports when addressing council members and several other abuses of trust.

She said construction was delayed by 120 days because the town and its partners rarely met deadlines for the detailed drawings to be ready. Whether it was plumbing, electrical, landscaping or interior drawings and blueprints, the delays became a regular occurrence which led to price increases. The same was true for the awarding of contracts. 

“It should be noted that construction began before the actual contracts were signed and I can confirm the former recreation director told staff working on the file that the contract did not need to be signed by the mayor or clerk to get work started,” she said.

There were also several delays on work provided by Buttcon and Ms. Carruthers said following a February 2022 meeting, Buttcon has failed to deliver any further financial documentation and the only updates provided to Renfrew council have been verbal reports or individual emails sent to some council members. She said her team is not optimistic Buttcon will forward the requested documentation and in her estimation, the audit is approximately 95 percent complete.

Mr. Skorobohacz said the former clerk, Kim Bulmer, was frustrated at the lack of proper reporting by Mr. Hill and he emailed those concerns to council. 

“The former clerk made it known he was frustrated that some senior staff were knowingly ignoring standard procurement procedures and not fulfilling their responsibilities as outlined in the Municipal Act,” he said. “The former clerk identified the issues to the elected and some committee chairs said the issue would work out and it would be identified. It never was.”

Coun. McDonald immediately pounced on that statement and he asked for the identities of the chairs noted in the report.

Mr. Skorobohacz said former Mayor Don Eady chaired the original ad-hoc advisory committee and current Mayor Sidney chaired the parks and recreation committee during the planning and reporting stages. He added as head of council, former Mayor Eady was chair of council.

Coun. McDonald asked what was required for a forensic audit to occur and Ms. Carruthers said a forensic audit is specialized and would be beneficial for Renfrew to contract one in the event they want to pursue any future legal action.

Coun. Legris officially closed the public meeting around 9 p.m. and council entered into a closed session. About 90 minutes later they came out of closed to pass a motion for the retention of a third-party financial analyst to perform a forensic audit of the Ma-te-Way expansion project.

Former Mayor Disappointed

In speaking later to the Leader, Sandi Heins, a former mayor and a member of council (2018-2022) that greenlit the $18.1 million project, confirmed many of the findings in the review, especially those related to Mr. Hill’s reports to council.

“When I was on council and Kevin would provide us with verbal updates and I said it then and I say it now…verbal reports are not good enough when we are making major decisions based on numbers we can substantiate,” she said. “I asked if there was a written record of the scoring of the tenders and I was told ‘yes’. I requested the documents be produced so council could examine them. I was told they would be sent to us. I never received them.”

Ms. Heins said she has been riding an emotional rollercoaster as she has followed the Ma-te-Way project from her time as mayor (1998-2010) when a potential aquatic centre was the priority.

“As a former mayor and a councillor, I try to stay out of public debates because I know being on council is a tough job with so many responsibilities and I respect those holding office to do what is right for our residents,” she said. “But I have kept up on the project and I was just overwhelmed by everything presented in the report. I knew there were problems, but I did not expect so many.”

During the meeting, Mr. Skorobohacz mentioned Ms. Heins by name as one of the few councillors who grilled Mr. Hill when he was providing a verbal report and said she wanted a written report, but it was never delivered.

When asked if she felt a sense of vindication after the auditors acknowledged her experience, she said she was just sad the whole project just fell apart and now residents have to pay because of mistakes that might have been avoided. 

“And I was very frustrated because I kept asking to see the written reports and I kept getting told it will be coming and it’s taken care of,” she said. “It never was and some of us were left out of all the information.”

By Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 27, 2024 at 15:26

This item reprinted with permission from   The Eganville Leader   Eganville, Ontario
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