Council’s summer vacation power handoff

Steve Craig hopes to reinstall CAO’s unlimited spending power during holidays, without creating another Washmill.

click to enlarge Deputy mayor Steve Craig at council. - RILEY SMITH
Deputy mayor Steve Craig at council.

Restricting how much the CAO can spend when council’s not around is really harshing Steve Craig’s summer vibes.

The deputy mayor wants to give unlimited spending authority back to HRM’s chief administrative officer, five months after those powers were taken away because of the potential for misuse.

Craig is putting forward a motion at the next meeting of Regional Council to amend the city’s procurement policy to allow the CAO to “approve a contract award of any amount when council is on summer or December holiday break.”

It’s the same clause that was removed back in February after being deemed unnecessary by council and staff.

“We’re never not here for more than three weeks in a row,” said Waye Mason at the time. “I don’t see where the urgency is.”

It’s also the exact same clause that allowed former CAO Dan English to infamously and secretively approve an $8.1-million construction tender for the Washmill Underpass while an oblivious council was occupied with a visit from the Queen.

Craig insists the reintroduced clause is different in spirit, if not wording.

“We’re not talking about Washmill. We’re talking about construction tenders; to do our street, to do our sidewalks,” he says.

“It’s not meant to circumvent the obvious contracts that one might question...That’s not the intent. This is a routine matter of things that have already been budgeted.”

His motion, however, doesn’t make any such clarification.

“Not at this point, no,” says Craig. “I imagine somebody might make an amendment to make it for that.”

Halifax’s current procurement policy evolved—in part—from auditor general Larry Munroe’s report on the Washmill fiasco, which detailed a culture inside city hall lacking peer review, proper documentation and with little accountability.

Recommendations on how to improve and streamline the awarding of tenders were approved in February. At the same meeting, council upgraded CAO Jacques Dubé’s spending authority for external contracts from $500,000 to $1.2 million.

Craig says an unforeseen consequence of the changes was just how many construction tenders are coming in over the $1.2-million upper limit—requiring council’s approval instead of the CAO’s rubber stamp.

Given that Halifax council meets sporadically over the summer months, those requirements can create delays during a busy—and short—construction season that’s already behind schedule.

“Last year we missed getting a lot of work done because we didn’t have the staff to do the work in getting those tenders out,” says Craig. “So we’re trying to catch up.”

From a risk perspective, there does appear to be a more obvious solution: Why can’t council just meet more in the summer? Craig says he has no problem with that. But doing so would require calling in clerks and municipal staff, all to approve one contract.

“Is it a good use of everybody’s time to come in for that one matter?”

Last year the municipality approved 17 contracts over $1.25 million.

Council will discuss Craig’s motion and construction tenders at a special meeting next Tuesday.

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