Analysis

Secrecy shrouding library board's short list unnecessary

After a two-hour, behind-closed-doors meeting of the Ottawa Public Library board, all that can be said for sure about the process of picking a location for the city's new central library is that it's shrouded in secrecy.

The Ottawa Public Library Board is considering 4 sites for the city's new central library. Or maybe 8.

Pedestrians walk in front of the Ottawa Public Library's central branch. On Tuesday the library board met behind closed doors to discuss the evaluation of the 12 sites being considered for a new central branch — but it won't say how many made the short list. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

After a two-hour, behind-closed-doors meeting of the Ottawa Public Library board, all that can be said for sure about the process of picking a location for the city's new central library is that it's shrouded in secrecy.

That's the only conclusion anyone can draw about the board's key meeting to discuss the short list of possible sites.

Which of the 12 previously announced possible locations made the cut? The board won't say.

For how many properties did the board order further study? Up to four, it seemed, as per the board's discussions last month.

But wait — it's possible that four different scenarios, where the city would partner with the federal Library and Archives Canada, are also on the table.

So, up to eight possibilities? No one with the library board would confirm the exact number. And certainly no one would say where these possible locations for this major institution actually are.

The reading, book-borrowing public isn't scheduled to hear anything more about the new central library — arguably the city's most exciting public infrastructure project after the LRT— until December.

That's when, according to library CEO Danielle McDonald, a big report will be released that includes the recommended site, the proposed partnership structure, the financial framework and the "project delivery method."

Essentially, the rest of the city will find out which properties the board was considering only after it's all a done deal. The public will then get five days to read the report before it goes to the board for a vote.

What we do know

Last month the library released a map of 12 sites being considered for a new central branch. The properties, most privately owned, are all located between King Edward Avenue and Bayview Road, and are all within a few blocks of Queen Street.

A team of planner-types from both outside and inside the city, as well as some officials from Library and Archives Canada, evaluated the 12 sites based on two approved sets of criteria: one for a facility that would house only the city library, and another set for one that would combine a central library and the Library and Archives collection.

The stacks inside the Ottawa Public Library's central branch. Ottawa's book-borrowing public isn't expected to get any more details about where a new central branch might go until December 2016. (Danny Globerman/CBC)

This is why there are up to eight scenarios being worked on: four for a city-only library, and four for a partnership model. But that doesn't necessarily mean there are eight separate sites, since some locations may be on the list for both a stand-alone and combined project. We just haven't been told.

It's likely that the December report will recommend one of the combined scenarios with a backup, city-only option — just in case the deal with the feds for a blockbuster project falls through.

There is one location that we know for sure is being looked at: 557 Wellington St. That's a city-owned property, just east of LeBreton Flats and north of Albert Street. The library folks used to refer to this tract of land as their "preferred option," but have since changed their language.

Now, they say the site will serve two purposes. It remains a candidate for the new library (it's not too far from the current Library and Archives building), but will also be used as the "comparator" for other sites. 

That means that the financial analyses and business cases for the other three (or seven, or whatever) sites will be judged against 557 Wellington.

No rules compelling release of short list

A fairness commissioner is overseeing this entire process to make sure it's open and trustworthy. But that commissioner never imposed a ban on the release of the short list.

In fact, according to an email McDonald sent to board members, the commissioner's view was that "this is not a matter of fairness with respect to releasing the ranked sites publicly, but that [releasing] it would not represent a best practice."

Coun. Tim Tierney is the chair of the Ottawa Public Library Board. (Jonathan Dupaul/CBC)

At Tuesday's meeting, the city's deputy city solicitor suggested that all 12 sites would still be in play until a binding legal agreement is in place for the winner. But that sounds like merely a lawyerly technical point.

If the board is really looking closely at, say, four top-rated sites, it's highly unlikely they will burn through all those options and end up reconsidering lower-ranked locations. So the public interest in knowing the sites on the short list remains valid.

Any suggestion that releasing the short list would somehow hurt the competitive process would take some explaining. After all, the property owners of all 12 sites will know soon enough if their land is in contention.

And no one is asking for the actual ranking. We don't need to know which sites received what marks up to this point. Nor is anyone asking for the secret details that would go into a legal agreement.

We'd just like to know locations being considered in case, you know, taxpayers might want to express their opinions about this project, which a preliminary study pegged at $86 million.

The group Bookmark the Core, for instance, has been vocal when it comes to where the library should go.

That seems to have upset the library board chair, Coun. Tim Tierney, so much that earlier this year he went on a public rant about the group's main spokeswoman, Emilie Taman. The councillor has since apologized.

Still, it's hard not to suspect that the main reason for not releasing the site finalists is to prevent any lively debate, or even disruptive discussion. Who's loudest in voicing their opinion shouldn't dictate where the central library goes, but an engaged public shouldn't be frozen out of the process just to make life easier for the board.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at joanne.chianello@cbc.ca or tweet her at @jchianello.