At Queen’s Park and in Ottawa, the most feared non-elected officials are the Auditors- General who along with the Parliamentary Budget officer keep governments on their toes by rooting out instances of waste or of poor value for money in programs. Despite some recent interference by the Harper Government in the Parliamentary Budget office, these financial watchdogs do a pretty good job of holding governments accountable. In Hamilton we need to consider installing a municipal level of financial accountability that is immune from political or entrenched bureaucratic influence. There are too many examples of lax controls in various areas of our municipal government to be ignored. Whether it’s the long-running embezzlement that was recently uncovered in the farmers’ market operation; a pattern of time theft in public works that was only discovered when a new manager took over; millions of dollars lost in the Deutschebank investment fiasco—shockingly exacerbated when a deadline for filing a lawsuit was missed—there appears to be no ability to head off these mishaps. A few years ago the city’s internal audit division found numerous instances of waste, cost overruns and poor project oversight in the water and wastewater department.
The report was a breath of fresh air, that unfortunately hasn’t been duplicated frequently enough since then. More recently the city has written millions of dollars in cheques to the Hamilton Waterfront Trust for projects that were sole-sourced to the agency, sometimes on the strength of one-line cost estimates provided by the agency; and in response to invoices that provide no details as to actual amount of work done or its actual cost. Every project comes in to the exact penny of the construction budget, including so-called contingencies— a term that supposedly describes unforeseen circumstances– but in the case of the HWT happens every time with pinpoint accuracy. In addition, city finance staff have admitted the HWT has been collecting administration fees from the City in an arrangement that has never been approved by council.
Sadly nobody in the city finance department seems to think there is anything wrong with the system, or if they do they are keeping silent owing to the special political status the HWT enjoys around the council table. Councillors owe their first duty to safeguard the interests of the public who elected them, but membership on the HWT board seems to take precedence over all else. That could perhaps be explained when Councillor Chad Collins chaired the organization; after all, nearly $6 Million worth of HWT projects ended up in his Ward 5. A similar amount has been spent in HWT board member Jason Farr’s Ward 2. It is harder to understand why a seasoned councillor like Tom Jackson is expending so much political capital defending these practices. If it is this easy to use the city treasury as an ATM, a new level of financial oversight is long overdue. It won’t happen without political support, and maybe with an election a year away somebody on or outside council will find the courage to demand better.