Thank goodness an internal auditor fire roasted the city over lavish spending on consultants. In 2016 alone the auditor reported, the city spent $40 million on consultant reports.
I fell into a deep, dark, rabbit hole looking into just one consultant’s report called the Hamilton West Harbour Investment Guide. I spent or wasted countless hours trying to determine why it was needed, was it of any use, and who even knows of its existence.
A Toronto firm called SvN was paid $248,000 to create the guide. The City of Hamilton put up $150,00 the Hamilton Community Foundation kicked in the rest. The money was part of a bigger pool of $400,000 that also got used by Evergreen City Works on Hamilton waterfront initiatives.
At numerous public meetings, many of them in the North End, architect/planner John van Nostrand, principal of SvN, presented slideshows of the guide.
In a nutshell the guide describes zoning in the West Harbour, and a major conclusion is that people who own houses have the opportunity to add additions, add density and create rental units.
It is not a ground-breaking document. But my initial concern was van Nostrand. While he was actively presenting the paid-for-by-public money Investment Guide, he was also calling meetings in the North End as a developer, head of a new company called JvNd developments. His company had bought property on James Street North and proposed to develop a new form of affordable housing. I wondered about the “optics” of this. I emailed various councillors and staff at the city and got responses from “I don’t get your concerns,” to “I could see where this is confusing for people.” I emailed the City of Hamilton integrity Commissioner. George Rust-D’Eye is a lawyer on a $18,000 a year retainer to the city. Though his jurisdiction is the conduct of elected officials, I asked if he might have insight since he is an expert in municipal law. His answer was a short-I have no jurisdiction and I can’t help you.
In an interview after one of his presentations, I asked van Nostrand about conflict of interest. ”I’m not in a conflict because people know I’m an architect and I can make sure people know that. There really is no conflict, obviously I can check that out, and if there is I’ll step outside my firm.”
“Who would say that you’re not, how would you check?” I asked. “I have no idea,” van Nostrand replied.
Van Nostrand went on to say because he is a planner/architect he “treads a line” and he gets asked about conflict of interest. “I put up with it but it does mean I am always double checking with my lawyer.”
After numerous back and forth conversations with city officials, senior adviser, Chris Phillips, to his credit sent me this response via email.
“City Staff understand some of the confusion this partnership between the City and HCF/Evergreen/Mr. van Nostrand’s firm has caused in the minds of some. As a recognition, all parties have discussed this and have agreed that going forward, those organizations external to the City need to be clear with their respective audiences of the work they have done in partnership with the City versus the work they are continuing to do within the community on their own.”
After pouring over old meeting minutes dating back to 2015, and attending numerous public meetings what began to weigh more heavily was the logic of spending public money on the West Harbour Investment Guide. The West Harbour is well studied from multiple angles, water quality, recreation, traffic management, and economic development. The West Harbour Document Library, a page on the City of Hamilton website is laden in studies, guides and initiatives, the van Nostrand report is in a folder under Capital Works/Technical Reports.
Is this one of the consultant reports paid for and never used, a major criticism in the auditor’s investigation? Very possible. When the West Harbour Investment Guide was presented at a meeting of the West Harbour Development Sub-Committee in April, Councillor Chad Collins asked the most pertinent questions- How do people know about this guide, and how is it going to be distributed. The answer from staff was “We’re Working on it.”
My opinion is that few people know about it and few people will care. Was the guide worth $150,000 of city money? Is it any good? Is it of use? Those are the important questions, and it’s a tedious, time consuming task to get answers.