Toronto’s leasing inquiry: Judgment day

Madame Justice Denise Bellamy delivered her final word Monday on the Toronto leasing inquiry, issuing a report containing 241 recommendations for the city’s future conduct, including the hiring of integrity commissioner to oversee the procurement process.

Bellamy headed the public inquiry, which was convened in 2002 to determine any wrongdoing in a computer leasing arrangement the city reached with Mississauga, Ont.-based MFP Financial Services. An investigation determined that Toronto had paid almost twice its original budget of $43 million for the computers.

“In 214 days of hearings, I heard from 156 witnesses,” said Bellamy during a speech Monday. “And I saw just about every kind of witness. Some were insightful. Some guessed. Some exaggerated. Some lied outright and some merely skated around the truth.

“I saw witnesses who had disgraced themselves, who had failed in their duty to the city, who had put self-interest first, or who had simply not done their jobs. Some had not displayed the leadership that one would have expected of them,” she said.

Bellamy’s report, which was issued immediately following her speech, lists a series of recommendations the city should adopt in order to prevent a repeat of the leasing scandal. The recommendations are itemized and contain phrases like “councilors and staff should not use their positions to further their private interests.”

The report recommended that the city hire an integrity of ethics commissioner who would report to city council (not the Mayor) and serve a fixed term in office. This person would be available to city staff for advice and guidance, and would also have disciplinary powers over councillors.

According to the report, those powers could include “public reprimands, public apologies, expulsion from one or more committee meetings, removal from committee posts or committee chairpersons . . . or, at the high end of the spectrum, a fine or declaration of a vacancy in the councillor’s seat.”

The report also spelled out generally recommendations for doing business, like obeying all provincial and federal laws, fulfilling contractual obligations, clear explanations of the cost of any bids, and avoiding the appearance of any conflict of interests.

The City of Toronto did not return calls for comment on the report.The more transparency the better as far as government contracts are concerned, said Jane Peatch, executive director of the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships. Typically, municipal government is more transparent than any other level of government, she said. “Virtually nothing can get through without so many eyes on every document.”

However, she added, “somehow even what we used to call the fishbowl of municipal government has fallen apart. If there’s an absence (of transparency), one would have to have things spelled out very clearly.”

But sometimes a surfeit of bureaucracy can slow down business processes for government, said Howard Grant, president of Ottawa-based Partnering and Procurement Inc.

“You have to be careful not to build process on process that actually prevents you from achieving the business outcomes that you’re looking for. It’s a balance that you have to create,” he said.

He agreed with Peatch that municipal business deals are already more transparent than those conducted at the federal or provincial level and that any centralization of procurement could lead to a bottleneck.

“You have to trust people,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to – 99.999 per cent of the people who work in the public sector are honest and doing their job.”

Toronto Mayor David Miller issued his own statement Monday. “This scandal was a sad chapter in the history of the city,” he said. “This is a story marked by arrogance, corruption, complacency, and incompetence. These things offend me to the core of my person, and go against everything I believe about public service. I believe in this inquiry as powerfully today as I did when I first fought for it.”

Miller, a city councilman when the MFP leasing deal was arranged, was one of the more outspoken critics of the scandal when it was revealed.

Earlier this year, the City of Toronto organized a vendor day to entertain bids for a possible 311 contract. Organized by industry association ITAC Ontario, vendors were invited to attend a meeting to discuss bids for the new municipal phone service and meet with representatives from other cities that had already established a 311 service.

Toronto currently has a contract in place with Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Compugen Inc. for desktop and notebook computers.

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