Sinking Ship broke lobbying rules for Mooney's Bay playground: integrity commissioner

The city's integrity commissioner says there were major breaches to Ottawa's lobbying rules in the lead up to the announcement of a new playground in Mooney's Bay Park.

City staff should have told TV company to register to 'ensure transparency': city manager memo

A small group of residents hold a 'protest picnic' on May 28, 2016 at the site of a planned playground for Mooney's Bay park. (Joanne Chianello)

The city's integrity commissioner says there were major breaches to Ottawa's lobbying rules in the lead up to the announcement of a new playground in Mooney's Bay Park.

Integrity Commissioner Robert Marleau's report says Sinking Ship Entertainment failed to register as a lobbyist — and that city staff failed to check if the TV production company had registered.

The report also said city staff claimed they didn't believe they were being lobbied and they guided the company to sources of public money.

City manager Steve Kanellakos responded in a memo to the mayor and council.

"In hindsight, and in an effort to ensure transparency for the public, staff should have informed Sinking Ship to register with the Lobbyist Registry," Kanellakos wrote.

Mayor Jim Watson (left) stands next to newly appointed city manager Steve Kanellakos (right) on Feb. 8, 2016. (Kate Porter/CBC)

In January, Sinking Ship Entertainment approached the city to build Canada's largest playground for its Giver program that airs on TVO. The show has built more than 40 playgrounds with the help of children and adult volunteers.

The playground, which is being built with nearly $1 million in public funding, has been controversial since it was announced in May. 

'A work around'

Marleau's report outlines email and phone calls between city staff and producers at Sinking Ship, starting January 5, 2016.

The report says the first email from the production company to Parks and Recreation General Manager Dan Chenier was more than a request for information and "was squarely in the realm of proposing a partnership."

The communication continued into the next month and culminated with a site visit on February 3, when Sinking Ship informed the city it would be looking for public money.

One city staffer even suggested a "work around" to a producer at Sinking Ship, as the company tried to secure a site and funding for the playground project in an email on February 4.

"It occurs to me that Sinking Ship is likely a for-profit company? It may create a problem with my partnership funding program but there are some possible work around [sic]," wrote Kevin Wherry, the acting manager of recreation planning and facility development.

He then suggested TVO could "front the application" since the company was applying funding from a community improvement program that asks for not-for-profit applicants. City staff should have realized that they were being lobbied at that point, Marleau wrote in the report.

City staff in the department of parks, recreation and cultural services said they did not think they were being lobbied since the proposal was "an offer of donated assets," according to the report.

Trees were removed in May to prepare for playground construction at Mooney' Bay Park. (CBC News)

Sinking Ship to register lobbying activity late

Sinking Ship's communication no longer qualified as lobbying after it applied to the Community Partnership Major Capital Program for funding on March 1. But the report makes it clear that city staff guided Sinking Ship right up to when the application was submitted.

City staff recommended the funding program, told the company about the deadline for applications and contemplated using an alternative funding source for the playground before the company submitted its application, according to the report.

It's under the program that the city is providing nearly $1 million to the playground, half its estimated cost. The money is coming from the city-wide cash-in-lieu of parkland fund, instead of the community partnership budget. Only community associations, sports organizations and clubs that are legally non-profits may apply to the program.

The report said there was no formal requirement for secrecy around the playground plans just an "informal understanding" to not release design details ahead of the playground being announced.

The playground will be shaped like Canada with each province and territory having its own unique play space. (Submitted)

Marleau said this was not a reason to avoid registration as a lobbyist, since his office has the authority to put a confidentiality code in place to delay the public reporting of lobbing activity.

Critics have said the project was too secretive and didn't have enough public consultations. The city has also been accused of bending the rules to approve the playground.

Kanellakos' memo said he has asked the city clerk and solicitor to review current directions related to the lobbyist registry so the rules are applied more consistently. The results of that review will be included in mandatory training for senior managers twice every year, he said.

The report said no councillors were directly involved with Sinking Ship from January 5 to March 1, 2016.

The integrity commissioner report said Sinking Ship cooperated with the investigation and will be allowed to register and report its lobbying activity late. The company will not face sanctions.