The Accountability Rule: Whoever has control has accountability.

With its grudging approval of an independent Project Board(PB) and its Terms of Reference (TOR), the CRD Board has ceded its control of the wastewater treatment and resource recovery system project to the province. Directors were essentially made an offer they couldn’t refuse. As Director Lisa Helps put it, if the TOR motion had failed, Directors would have had to go home and tell taxpayers that they had just lost $500M in provincial and federal funding.

As for the challenging issue of location, the TORs specify that the PB is “responsible for site acquisition” and that it will “work cooperatively with host municipalities on siting the facility or facilities”. Metchosin Director Ranns, noting the tight timelines involved, asked provincially-appointed facilitator Peter Milbourne how the PB would get the rezoning on the sites required by the successful proponent and still “stay within the Community Charter” if the municipality didn’t want the facility. Milbourne replied that, in addition to the Community Charter, there are other provincial and federal “legislative pieces”, such as the Environmental Management Act, that impact rezoning and land use, and noted that they hadn’t been excluded from the TOR. In other words, local councils may not have the option to refuse rezoning a site designated by the PB.

Given ultimate control over siting and also that the PB is “responsible for overall planning, project management, site acquisition, expenditures, and liquid waste management planning for the purposes of the Project” it’s difficult to see how the CRD Board could realistically still be said to have “overall accountability for the Project”. Indeed, its only responsibility seems to be approval of the final Business Case to be submitted to the federal and provincial governments. And at approval time, the same $500M gun will be held to its head.  Although a CRD share of the costs not in keeping with that of the other two funders could prompt a refusal of the Board to sign on.

When watching a CRD Board meeting live, this screen appears when the Board goes “in camera”. With the provincial takeover, the whole sewage project has essentially gone “in camera”.

So with the PB firmly in the driver’s seat, where is the project now headed in terms of the system’s design and location? What results can taxpayers now hold it accountable for? According to the vision and general goals set out, the PB seems bound for the same destination that the CRD was:

  • Deliver a sewage treatment and resource recovery system that is innovative, achievable and optimizes benefits for the long term.
  • Treat waste materials as resources and support the principles of Integrated Resource Management.
  • Minimize costs.
  • Consider use of leading technologies.
  • Optimize opportunities for resource recovery and greenhouse gas reduction

The CRD’s track record in using the site identification and zoning process to help achieve these results is mixed. Viewed from the 10,000 foot level, the municipalities have been extremely cooperative. Last year they put forward more than 60 potential sites for use as a wastewater treatment facility. And just in case any high value sites were overlooked on that list, its Project Charter allowed the CRD to request that they be offered up by the respective municipality for consideration.

On the ground however, things have been very difficult. The most notable example was the CRD Board’s failed attempt to get the Province to override Esquimalt’s refusal to provide the zoning required for a single centralized facility at McLoughlin Point. Another was Saanich Council’s refusal to put a potentially high-value site forward, even “for consideration,” because it was in the ALR. Most recently it was the CRD’s Technical Oversight Panel (TOP) admitting it was unaware that a much more preferable site, Victoria’s Clover Point, was available when it drew up its seven option sets, all centred around Rock Bay. Its last-minute inclusion of Clover Point in the amended Liquid Waste Management Plan sparked considerable neighbourhood opposition. It’s therefore moot whether Victoria City council would have provided the necessary zoning. For the Project Board seems to have relieved Victoria, and all the other municipalities, from having to make this most difficult of decisions and of a most challenging task – gaining social license before rezoning

Considering the close relationship between sites and the best project outcome, this loss of municipal authority, albeit heavy handed, may turn out to be worth it in the end. For if costs are to be absolutely minimized and benefits maximized, private sector vendors must have guaranteed access to the sites they require in order to optimize their technology option(s) and provide the highest value solution at the lowest price to the taxpayer. If the necessary sites aren’t assured however, two things will happen. Vendors who may have provided the best and cheapest solution simply won’t submit a bid. And for those that do, they’ll come at a higher price and/or diminished benefits because their optimal sites weren’t made available. Either way, those footing the bill, the taxpayers, will not get the best possible deal.

As several Directors commented, the CRD Board has taken, absent any real choice, a huge leap of faith in the PB. But with its unfettered control, there is absolutely nothing preventing the PB from the providing business case development and procurement processes that allow for the very best outcome. So this faith may turn out to have been well placed. An early indicator will be when we see whether the Board is comprised of truly open minded experts; individuals who will be able to fulfill their TOR role of “approach[ing] options objectively” “during the Business Case planning process”. This role requirement may eliminate individuals who have previously strongly defended the single site solution at McLoughlin Point and now might continue to champion this option to the exclusion of objectively better ones. [Note: As of this writing the names of appointees was confidential]

Of course, the most critical test will be the procurement process itself. Saanich Director Vic Derman noted that the values to be reflected in the winning solution this time around are stated in the PB’s TOR: Innovation, optimizing environmental benefits, minimizing costs, GHG mitigation, waste as resource. These, he pointed out, are essentially the same values proposed by former MoE Minister Barry Penner back in 2007. They were also embedded in the charter and/or TOR of the initiatives that produced the McLoughlin Point proposal and, most recently, the solution sets issued by the TOP. That none of these came even close to reflecting the stated values is a serious concern to Derman and demonstrated the need to include in the PB’s TOR details of the procurement process through which these values would be realized. As they were not provided, he voted against the motion to adopt.

Director Derman suggested a competitive dialogue approach to procurement. It’s a process in which scope definition is intentionally left as open and flexible as possible in order to minimize barriers to innovation and attract a cohort of quality vendors. Then, in response to values and very high level goals, qualified proponents compete with one another to provide the best solution at the lowest cost and win the contract. That the scope of the current project can now be unimpeded by pre-selected sites and that the TOR clearly spells out the values, high level goals and results to be achieved by prospective proponents, the conditions seem ideal for this approach to procurement.

Assuming the competitive dialogue process does minimize costs by providing the successful proponent with the necessary sites, the TOR requirement of “taking positive measures to integrate the infrastructure within the host municipality or municipalities” could start with a generous amenities package. Given the savings realized through minimizing costs, funding it shouldn’t be a problem. Additional “positive measures” could take the form of public input on some final design features and minimizing construction disruption.

In addition to accountability, management of transparency has also been ceded to the PB. CRD Directors were told that they would not be permitted to attend any of its closed meetings. However the PB would provide monthly progress reports and a comprehensive quarterly report.

Having thus being reduced to bystanders, regional taxpayers and CRD Directors  can only hope that the new process, free of the major constraints of elected representatives: public engagement and gaining the social license to rezone sites, can deliver a significantly better product than those provided to date by the CRD Board. If it does, the Province’s major intrusion into regional jurisdiction here will likely be forgotten. If it doesn’t, the only option for residents to express their displeasure would seem to be next year’s provincial election.

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