Bob Ransford loves Richmond. He was born and raised in Richmond. He actually lives in Richmond. He asked Malcolm Brodie to run for office and helped Brodie get elected in a bi-election in 2001 and then again in 2002. Today, Ransford is heartbroken.
“Richmond is drifting. The City has a corporate vision, but it was crafted by the bureaucratic and political elites in City hall without any public by-in. The only way the elites can achieve their corporate vision is to spend whatever it takes in pursuit of their goal of making Richmond ‘the most appealing, liveable and well-managed community in Canada.’ It is costing us dearly in every way.”
Nothing focuses Ransford’s angst more clearly than The Richmond Speed Skating Oval for the 2010 Olympics. The Oval is a colossus. It is the grandest construction project of the 2010 Olympics and the costliest single project assembled by a Richmond government. Here’s how the official City of Richmond website describes the project:
The Richmond Oval will be home to long track speed skating during the 2010 Games. The Oval is being built by the City of Richmond at a budgeted cost of $178 Million. Post-Games, the Oval will be a centre for sports and wellness. It will boast ice, hardwood and indoor turf surfaces. It is located on 32 acres of City owned land along the banks of the Fraser River. Site clearing and construction have begun and completion is scheduled for fall, 2008. The Oval will qualify for ongoing funding from a $110 Million Legacy Trust to offset operating costs.
The Straight has discovered “the rest of the story.”
[Check our insert below for a quick primer on how the City of Richmond has been handling other issues.]
The Oval is reported regularly to be “on time and on budget.”
Originally slated for November 2007, completion has been moved first to April 2008, then fall, 2008. Drive by. To date, it looks like a pile of sand.
On Budget? The oft-quoted $178 Million covers the Oval and the underground parking garage. Never mentioned are the following costs, necessitated entirely by the Oval. Purchase of CP Lands right-of-way (estimated $12M); River Road realignment (est. $7M); Hollybridge Way widening to 4 lanes ($?); Lansdowne Road widening and extensions ($?); new north-south local roads, as yet undetermined ($?); public art; Plaza ($5.2M), travel and consultation $1.5M), and ongoing daily staff time ($?). The true cost is already well in excess of $200 Million and climbing. The Torino speed skating facility was built for $100 Million.
As for the $110M Legacy Trust, that is the capital, not the interest, some portion of which Richmond might acquire. Richmond City Manager George Duncan admitted to me in a recent meeting at City hall that the City might get only $1.9 - $3M annually, even though they continue to trumpet the $110M figure at every opportunity. The Legacy Trust Board has yet to meet.
Who is running this project? John Furlong is the public face of the 2010 Olympics. Who’s in charge of the Oval?
We asked City Councillor Bill McNulty if there is a Mr. Oval.
“No. I guess it’s City Manager George Duncan by default.”
Peter Webster, a developer and seasoned sportsman at local and international levels, is a member of the Oval Steering Advisory Committee. We asked him who’s at the helm.
“George Duncan. But he has so many other issues to deal with: works yard, the firemen, people on stress leave.”
Is there one person who is Mr. Oval?
Shouldn’t there be?
Adds Bob Ransford, “There is no Mr. Oval. To be Mr. Oval, you would have to be a champion. To be a champion, you would have to develop community will, you have to communicate with people.”
Ransford continues, “The Oval began behind closed doors – a megalomaniac idea – the brainchild of a small group of people looking for nothing more than self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, they also had the keys to the taxpayers’ vault. George Duncan has the world’s biggest Lego set and unsuspecting taxpayers have given it to him.”
One need only study Duncan’s official credit card receipts to witness how carefully he spends taxpayers’ dollars. Aside from a dazzling catalogue of restaurant and hotel charges in almost a dozen locales worldwide, witness only these 3 entries made on December 15, 2005:
Lufthansa- Skyphone, calls to staff in Torino, Italy, $93.82, $117.28 and $11.73.
These 3 calls made, presumably on one flight, must have been of the highest priority.
Duncan confirms that all the Oval project managers and senior staff report to him.
“In the end,” he told The Straight, “the buck stops with me at the administrative level, and at City Council at the political level.”
We asked Bill McNulty if City Council ever challenges Duncan about how he spends public money.
“No. The public views us as a spendthrift council. The Mayor should provide direction, but he doesn’t appear to want to know details. He just wants the Oval built.”
McNulty, Webster and Ransford all have concerns about the lack of hired expertise and a staff that are struggling to operate above their levels of competence.
McNulty offers this impression of one of the many oversees staff trips. “I’ve asked are the experts involved? The staff and council are just not experienced. You see, we’re playing ball with the Big Boys now and most of our people have come from Parks and Recreation. I don’t have any problem with travel, but are the right people going? In Torino, we were there to look at long track skating – that’s what the Oval is about. But instead we had one ticket for long-track and 5 tickets for hockey. We weren’t there to look at hockey.”
Webster questions the leadership.
“City staff doesn’t use the expertise they have around the table. Frankly, I wonder if they know what they’re doing. This is the showcase piece, and they’ve never done anything like this before. The communication from the staff is not good. Look, I’m involved in a small project, about $13 Million, and I talk my guys every day and I get a piece of paper to look at several times a week. It’s a huge step to move from municipal, recreational concerns to a world-class facility. Frankly, staff finds it hard to accept that there are people smarter than them. On the Steering committee, we have doers in the real world, but there are no entrepreneurs on staff. One senior staffer was managing a swimming pool before this.”
Ransford is even more sanguine. “They’ve hired a raft of new people for the bureaucracy. There’s no check on spending at all. But they haven’t hired any experts, people who could really help, because they believe that they are the experts.”
We point out to Duncan that many see him as the undeclared leader. He says, “Look, I’m the guy who went to Council and recommended the 3 advisory committees. I was the one who raised the name of Dr. Roger Jackson as an important contributor and recommended that we hire outside project and construction managers. I’ve just become the lightening rod for any criticism that arises. ”
Bruce Rosenhart, a Vancouver communications consultant and a Richmond resident, is another member of the Oval Steering Advisory Committee.
“The committee is only concerned with the Oval structure, not with any extraordinary costs, like parking, art, the road diversion, and CP Rail. This must not be a white elephant. Richmond has traditionally been seen as Vancouver’s poor second cousin, as a ‘tail-end Charlie.’ The Oval is the architecturally defining facility for Richmond. The only serious question I have is does anyone on council or anyone on staff have a real over-all vision for Richmond?”
Sport BC, the umbrella organization for more than 80 sports groups and 800,000 active participants in the province, has been in discussion with Oval staff for some time now about how they might cooperate on facilities and programs post-Olympics.
After dozens of meetings with Oval staff, Sandra Stevenson, the President and CEO of Sports BC, now asks, “Where is the leadership? Who is the decision maker? I’ve spent too much time exchanging information. How are we modelling a shared vision? It’s not apparent to me. What is apparent is that it’s all about power and control.”
Local Unions are incensed with the Oval project on at least 2 important levels. It was revealed through a Freedom of Information that George Duncan signed an agreement guaranteeing labour peace during the Olympic period. Because the City has a clear obligation to consult with the union on such matters, the union has filed a grievance with the city. Quite simply, Duncan didn’t have the authority to make those assurances. As well, the unions are raising important, and unanswered, questions about security. Asks a union official, “Who is doing security for the Olympics? The FBI, the CIA, CSIS? Will our members be marshalled? And who is checking security levels on the people who are actually constructing the project?”
A recent Steering Committee meeting in July was cancelled. The reason given was that there was nothing to discuss. Six meetings were cancelled last summer.
McNulty says, “This is a huge project. There’s always something important to discuss.”
Webster agrees, “The process has never functioned smoothly. They changed the schedule mid-stream. They only call the meeting together when they think it’s important. The last meeting was cancelled, because they said there was nothing important to discuss. When there’s $178Million and less than 1200 days, there’s always something important.”
Duncan responds that the people who complain are the same people who have themselves missed recent meetings.
How is Richmond City Hall functioning these days with all the Oval excitement in its midst?
Duncan estimates that 10% of his day is taken up with the Oval. Yet he spent 2 1/2 hours with The Straight on a recent morning and churns out Oval-related e-mails and memos by the basketful.
McNulty despairs, “The city is on hold because the Oval is a full-time project. We’re trying to run a city, but this is a full-time project.”
Ransford is a development consultant with over $300M in developments to his credit. He reports, “Today when you go into city hall to deal with some local project, they tell you, “Oh, we can’t do that; everyone’s working on the Oval!” This is an exact repeat of the Tall Ships episode. “We can’t do that; we’re working on the Tall Ships!””
But City Manager George Duncan insists that the work of the city hasn’t stopped. “When we received complaints that some of our staff had told people they were busy with the Oval, I went to council and secured additional funds to bring in more people to deal with the extra work load.”
Was this added to the Oval budget?
“The full scope of the work,” admits Duncan, “costs more than the $178M for the design and building of the Oval. But these things – like re-aligning River Road – have been in our plans for years.”
Moving these roads and re-working the riverfront, however, have all been precipitated by the Oval?
Duncan readily agrees. “Exactly. We have a Land Acquisition Budget, for example. We don’t have to take the money from anywhere else.”
Ransford questions the entire enterprise. “How will we pay for the construction of the Oval? We still don’t completely know. How will we pay to operate the facility after the games? We don’t really know. And will the community be a better place when all is said and done?”
Webster is equally discouraging. “We have no concrete information. We have no business plan. We have no marketing plan. We have no financial plan.”
Where are we today?
Webster shrugs, “I have no idea.”
In letters dated July 13 and August 2, 2004, Bob Ransford warned Mayor Malcolm Brodie of the potential for the current state of affairs.
“Does the public not have the right to know the general details of the bid before you make it? Should not the scope of the project – magnitude of public investment in land, capital cash requirements and guarantees, public uses, etc. be known in advance?
This is now the central focus of everyone at City Hall, and [everything else] has been superseded by the City’s new “Olympic culture.” Shouldn’t we be discussing as a community whether we want to make this shift in focus before we make it?
We are not getting a long-term vision or building on our strengths. Instead we are living in a dream world, where more exciting projects eclipse the mundane.”
Is the Mayor listening? Are Richmond voters listening?
INSERT for THE STORY OF “O”
This is the land of “Nothing Proved. Nothing Solved. Let’s move on.”
ITEM: The Tall Ships. An official City report, dated Feb. 13/03, states “the cost for the Richmond Tall Ships 2002 was in the range of $3-3.5 Million when the contribution of staff was included.” The Straight is in receipt of credit card statements showing staff buying cell phones, for example, at retail prices in excess of $300 each (with $100 leather cases), when the City clearly has a customer relationship with a major cell supplier.
ITEM: Jose Mario Ferreira filed a BC Supreme Court lawsuit in 2001 against the City of Richmond and five of its employees. He alleged private contractors sold city owned goods and that his employer, the City Works Yard, was regularly guilty of double and triple billing, misuse of sick time, and personal use of city credit cards. He further alleged that he was called “rat,” “nigger” and “faggot’ by colleagues and subjected to humiliating treatment and harassment by colleagues when his claims were made public. The City argued that this was a case for labour relations and human rights and not the courts. To date, there is no known resolution.
ITEM: Firefighters. Stories of harassment and sexual shenanigans on the part of Richmond Firefighters were front-page news across the country this spring. Resolution? Responsibility? Criminal charges?
ITEM: Women on Stress Leave. Several female City staffers went on stress leave shortly after returning from Torino. Why?
ITEM: Rabbits. Yes, rabbits. Behold the Year of the Great Richmond Rabbit Explosion. The critters, multiplying in biblical proportions and munching every veggie in sight, have baffled the planners at City Hall. The planners are talking.
ITEM: Casino crime. Loan-sharking, extortion and kidnapping are taxing the capacities of Richmond’s RCMP. No practical solution or additional resources cited to date.
ITEM: Massage Parlour mayhem. Housewives Against Prostitution in Richmond trumpets, “We know that a lot of prominent citizens frequent the dozens of massage parlours licensed by the City of Richmond.” The City responds that it has stringent bylaws. Then, why so many massage rooms? Who is using them?
ITEM: Number 3 Road. After spending upwards of $80 Million to completely redesign Richmond’s central thoroughfare only a few years ago, the City has now torn up #3 Road to accommodate the new RAV line. How much has this lack of foresight and bad planning cost the taxpayers?
ITEM: Garden City Lands. For over 25 years, the city has coveted this parcel. VANOC wanted to build the International Broadcast Centre there and then let Richmond take it over for use as a Convention centre. Richmond fumbled the package. The Broadcast Centre has gone to downtown Vancouver, and Richmond will pay more than $4 Million for less than half the original lands.
ITEM: Minoru Arenas. City managers floated a trial balloon, which was quickly popped by long-time residents. Councillor Harold Steeves, who is also the Parks Chair, said, “Some staff felt that we could do away with the arenas and put everybody down at the Oval.” Added Councillor Bill McNulty, “I’m not so sure staff realized that they would get opposition from sports men and women who have been fighting for facilities for 30 years in this community.” Who was consulted?
ITEM: Tables for Ted. On Aug. 3/06, The Richmond Review published a letter to the editor from a local couple, “Apparently some citizens are more equal than others.” They describe a dinner and concert evening in which the best tables are reserved for Ted Townsend, the front-line PR man for the City, and his friends. Did Ted pay? Did the City? Why can’t others get front row tables?
ITEM: A complainant gave me the following list: Hoes, spades, rakes, toilet paper, lamps, accessories, oil, fixtures, coffee, tarpaulins, electric power tools. These were among the items crowding her garage. She was in the midst of an acrimonious divorce. She claimed her husband had stolen these from the Richmond Works Yards where he had been employed for many years.
“Everyone does it; why not me?” was his rationalization.
She blew the whistle. Eric Gilfillan, then Director of Operations for Richmond Public Works (since left City employ with a total payout of $459,637.40, including Early Retirement incentive, vacation, gratuity and banked overtime) attended. So did RCMP officers Peter de Vries and Philip Yuen. All agreed that some materials resembled municipal equipment. Unfortunately, there were no City Of Richmond stamps visible. End of case.
Her second list chronicled what she believed to be unacceptable behaviour from her husband and his colleagues at Richmond Works: Personal use of municipal equipment and vehicles, sleeping in municipal vehicles during work hours, lengthy personal telephone calls at work, stalking her in municipal car, harassment of her by Works Yard employees, using company discount card for personal purposes, cover-up in helping each other to steal, inappropriate items and pornography at work, inappropriate use of petty cash, and instructions from supervisors to do no work.
Panels were struck, discussions were held. Nothing proved. Move on.
ITEM: This summer a 17-year employee of the Works yard, discovered selling yard materials for his own personal gain, was given the option for early retirement. Within a month of that incident, a second employee was caught red-handed in the same infraction, selling yard materials for personal profit. This employee was not fired or criminally charged. This employee was docked one day’s wages. This employee is the son of the Yard boss.