The Senate has spent $66K on 'ushers' to hold doors open in its inaccessible building

Senate bureaucrats approved a sole-sourced contract — now worth as much as $95,000 — to hire people to hold doors in the Senate's new building because there aren't enough automatic door openers in place, the internal economy committee heard Thursday.

'This is a serious problem. This should not have happened,' Tory senator says of sole-source contract

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. The Senate will remain in what is Ottawa's Old Train Station during the renovations of the Parliament Hill Centre Block. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Senate bureaucrats approved a sole-source contract — now worth as much as $95,000 — to hire people to hold doors open in the Senate's new building because there aren't enough automatic door-openers in place, the internal economy committee heard Thursday.

Since February 2019, the Senate has retained Arlington Group Inc., an Ottawa-based private security firm, to staff the Senate of Canada Building — the upper house's temporary home during Centre Block renovations — because of a lack of door-openers in the space. The devices typically are used by the disabled and people with mobility issues to help them past heavy doors.

While automatic door-openers are now ubiquitous in most public places, the administration said Public Services and Procurements renovated the space — Ottawa's former central train station — without installing an adequate number of the devices.

At least one senator, Sen. Chantal Petitclerc, uses a wheelchair to get around.

Julie Lacroix, the director of corporate security at the Senate of Canada, approved a sole-source $24,000 contract — with no competitive bidding — for these services in February before authorizing a further $11,000 in March. She then added another $60,000 to the contract to keep the ushers in place until the end of this parliamentary session in June.

Of the total $95,000 value of the contract, $66,000 has already been spent. Based on a survey of websites, automatic door-openers can retail for anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 apiece before installation.

The Senate's internal economy steering committee, which essentially governs the chamber and approves spending and expenses, was not told about Lacroix's spending and only learned about it from media reports.

Section 2.18.3 of the Senate's procurement rules stipulates that sole-source service contracts that exceed the $35,000 threshold must be pre-authorized by the internal economy committee.

"When I read that [section], I see that it should've been approved by the committee but we didn't approve it," Conservative Newfoundland Sen. Elizabeth Marshall said. "We have a contract for almost $95,000 ... you have to be open and transparent and things have to be advertised. There's a system that ensures fairness, and in this case, we didn't comply with our system. Are we being fair to suppliers?"

"It's extremely clear what the rules are. To me ... there's no, 'Well, maybe, gee whiz, oh,'" Conservative Saskatchewan Sen. David Tkachuk said. "Internal had no clue what was going on. Did it ever enter anybody's mind that, perhaps, other people should know about what was going on and the expenditures that were being released?

"This is a serious problem. This should not have happened."

Conservative Manitoba Sen. Plett asked Thursday why the Parliamentary Protective Service (PPS) wasn't performing the door-holding task.

Lacroix said the PPS members are to be used for "physical security" alone in the parliamentary precinct, while outside ushers were retained to help "facilitate movement."

"I think it's great that people are opening doors for us but if I have to open half the doors myself, I can open the other half myself," Plett said. "I'm perplexed about how we only thought this was going to cost $24,000 and all of a sudden it's going to cost us $70,000 or $100,000. Let's be very careful here. We have rules."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanks a Parliamentary Protective Service officer as he leaves the Foyer of the House of Commons for the evening after participating in the second night of a marathon voting session on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 21, 2019. The Senate hired outside security 'ushers' to help senators and visitors navigate the Senate of Canada building. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Lacroix said she thought she could act alone because the initial value of the contract was initially below $35,000.

She said she told members of the Senate's long-term vision and planning committee (LTVP), which counts Plett as a member, that there were mobility issues that needed to be addressed temporarily.

Liberal Sen. Jim Munson said the ushers are absolutely necessary to help not only senators but committee witnesses and visitors to the Senate with mobility issues — and other senators shouldn't question the motives of well-meaning security directorate officials.

"At the end of the day, this is all about the common good. It's about security and it is about accessibility. Yesterday, with no ushers, I had two young Special Olympic athletes who had a difficult time getting into this building, getting into the Senate chamber. That's not acceptable," he said.

The Globe and Mail first reported on the Senate's hiring of these ushers, a story that prompted the Senate administration to temporarily suspend the use of private security guards as door-holders on Tuesday so that the committee could review the spending.

The Senate told that newspaper the people were hired to help people "navigate the new Senate spaces" — but failed to specify that they were needed, in large part, because of an absence of electronic door openers, a detail that was only revealed at committee Thursday.

"The Senate's reputation in the meantime has been damaged and you had a perfectly reasonable explanation for why this was happening ... I'm just trying to understand why there was this communication gap," Conservative Ontario Sen. Linda Frum said to Lacroix.

Richard Denis, the interim clerk of the Senate, said this extra information is "helpful to know now," and it should have been provided to the media. "We're trying to draw lessons from this ... so we can all do better," he said.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.


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