'Free' money no reason for secrecy in city of Ottawa projects
Better process needed for spelling out transparency in private-public deals
Surprises are good for birthdays. For spending $1 million of public money to alter public land on a deal negotiated and approved in secret, not so much.
Last week's announcement that the city will hand over $1 million to a private company to build a 50,000 square-foot playground on a beloved waterfront without informing councillors, without consulting the community, with no public details available about the deal — and not even a single pretty picture to woo us — is another display of a lack of transparency at the halls of municipal power.
In January, Sinking Ship Entertainment approached the city to build Canada's largest playground at Mooney's Bay for its Giver TV program that airs on TVO. Using children and adult volunteers, the show has built more than 40 playgrounds. Ottawa's — which the company estimates will be worth $2 million — would be a salute to Canada and a 2017 legacy project.
In return, Sinking Ship wanted $1 million in public money, as well as complete secrecy while conducting negotiations, during which the company reportedly changed its mind once or twice about coming to Ottawa.
Because the city money comes from a parkland fund that is meant for city-wide projects, bureaucrats were able to approve the funding without going to council first. That a city manager could spend $1 million on a park without their approval came as a surprise to some city councillors — and likely not a few taxpayers.
There are many unanswered questions over this deal that was hatched in secret in less than five months.
What are the details of the financing? Does the city bear any fiscal responsibility if the project runs out of money part-way through? Who exactly are the other partners and how much are they donating? Giver is trying to crowdfund $150,000 for the project. As of Thursday afternoon, it had raised $770. What happens if it doesn't raise the $150,000?
What were the criteria for the site? Why did Britannia or Andrew Haydon parks not qualify?
What will the long-term costs be of maintaining this new playground, costs that will fall to city taxpayers?
What do residents think about the plan? Already, those who live nearby and use the current Sue Holloway Fitness Park at Mooney's Bay aren't too taken with the idea. And as the project would impose major changes to a popular waterfront, people from across the city would probably have opinions on the idea, too.
Residents will have a chance to voice their thoughts at a public meeting set for early June, but this is a done deal.
And when we're giving away $1 million in public money, and making significant changes to a public recreational area, that's not appropriate.
Nor is it the first time.
A little Lansdowne?
The obvious analogy for the new Mooney's Bay playground is the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park, writ small. A private company comes along promising to invest money in underused public property. The city will also invest money, and because it'll be a win-win situation, regular processes were thrown out the window.
The way the Lansdowne deal went down caused massive turmoil and was fought over in court. The city has apparently learned nothing.
It's not that cities should dismiss offers of help, partnerships, or cold hard cash out of hand.
But if we're going to engage in private-public partnerships — and it seems their get-more-now-but-pay-more-later approach is here to stay for the conceivable future — we need to formalize our expectations of how the city should handle them.
That a private corporation — be it CIBC sponsoring the city's 2017 celebrations or a television production company building monkey bars — wants to keep details of deals secret is no reason to do so.
Coun. Riley Brockington, who represents River ward where Mooney's Bay is located, said he was told not to speak publicly about the project. The city's GM of parks and rec, Dan Chenier, tried to get Sinking Ship to talk too, but they refused.
Should the city be taking its orders from a television production company, and throwing public money into the deal to boot?
Taxpayers have a right to know the terms of agreements its municipal government makes with private enterprises. For arrangements that would directly impact the lives of residents, there needs to be consultation — before everyone signs on the dotted line.
New rules for private partnerships needed
At Thursday's meeting of the community and protective services committee, Coun. Keith Egli conceded that setting up a formal process for how public-partnerships are negotiated may be something council should look at during a mid-term governance review coming up this fall.
It's a fine idea. That way the rules aren't made up along the way. Any private company would know what sort of disclosure would be required before entering into a deal with the city, while city officials wouldn't be making up rules as they went along.
The planned playground for Mooney's Bay may well be a wonderful addition to the city. It may be a project that we should wholeheartedly embrace. But the lack of transparency, consultation and proper process risks poisoning the plan before it gets off the ground.