Some Hamilton councillors want out of public input contract

Several city councillors want to end a $376,000 contract with an Ottawa-based firm hired to gather input on city services.

Sam Merulla on Our Voice, Our Hamilton

10 years ago
Duration 3:29
Mark Chambers of CBC/Radio-Canada interviews Coun. Sam Merulla

Several Hamilton city councillors want to end a $376,000 contract with an Ottawa-based firm hired to gather input on city services.

Coun. Sam Merulla says the project is beyond recovery, and he wants to bring it in house to be dealt with by city staff.

"We can't in any way recover from a credibility standpoint," said Merulla, who wants to "terminate the contract as it exists today."

"We need to launch it internally as opposed to with an external consulting firm."

The Dialogue Partners project drew criticism this week when it launched an Our Voice, Our Hamilton website and social media campaign.

Using the Twitter account @ourhamilton, a staff member at the consulting firm asked "what is HSR?" in a tweet about Hamilton Street Railway, the city's transit system. The company said in a Facebook post Tuesday that it was just making sure it understood the tweet.

Its Pinterest board also had a photo from Hamilton, Ohio, which the company said it did not place there. Further investigation from residents revealed malicious code placed on the new website, which the company said was the result of a hacker.

The website was temporarily removed Wednesday night because of "offensive and inaccurate content," the city said in a media statement. It did not elaborate on the nature of the content, or who put it there.

Twitter users continued to fume Wednesday using the #telloheverything hashtag. Merulla called the company "a stranger to competence."

'Lost the city at hello'

"We need to determine if we can regroup, terminate and save that money," Merulla told CBC News. The firm "lost this entire city at hello and there is no point in going forward from my perspective."

Coun. Brenda Johnson said if it came to a vote, she would vote to eliminate the 12-month contract.

"I wonder how many citizens of Hamilton will now participate seriously, or will they even accept the findings of this firm's results given their actions to date," she said.

Coun. Judi Partridge said she was "appalled at the unprofessionalism displayed by this firm."

Coun. Bernie Morelli said he is waiting on recommendations and comments from the city's senior management team.

"While I support citizen engagement, and this project in principle, at this point I would seriously consider canceling the contract based on the direct feedback I am receiving from residents," he said.

Staff getting trained

The project's purpose is to gather input on city services in light of an annual $195-million infrastructure deficit. The year-long project, awarded to Dialogue Partners in a request for proposals process, includes training 26 city staff on how to better gather input from the public.

The website and social media outreach is just the tip of the iceberg, said Coun. Jason Farr. Because of that, he's not in favour of axing the contract right now, particularly if it results in a legal challenge for the city.

The staff training has been comprehensive and successful so far, he said. And it's much needed.

Farr acknowledges that the firm has made mistakes. But in the training sessions and meetings he has had with them, "they were doing their homework," he said.

"I'm a pro-Hamilton guy like anybody else, and anything we can do in-house, let's do it in-house," Farr said. "But there are limitations on what we can do."

No drastic measures

Coun. Brian McHattie says there were "silly mistakes," but he still believes in the project, which could eliminate the need to hire consultants in the future.

"I remain confident this is going to work out," he said. "There was a misstep, which is unfortunate, but that's being rectified now.

"I don't agree that we have to take any drastic measures. There is a lot of work going on at city hall up and down the floors to correct this."

Coun. Chad Collins didn't like the idea of the project to begin with. He'd like to cancel the contract, but "I want to know what the implications are first."

The issue will likely be discussed at the general issues committee meeting on Jan. 14, Collins said.

Calgary alderman 'not unhappy'

The city of Calgary hired Dialogue Partners to do an $800,000 public consultation project in 2011. That report formed the basis of Calgary's 2011-2014 budget deliberations, Alderman Gord Lowe told CBC Hamilton.

Lowe "was not unhappy" with the report or the firm's work.

The public meetings organized by the firm drew small crowds, but the social media input was huge, he said.

"You have to wait until the process is completed, analyze the data and extrapolate the material you need."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca