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Opinion: Public kept in dark about magnitude of Bateman Project

Burlington Councillors have given the green light to a plan to renovate the former Robert Bateman School into a community hub at a cost including land, of approximately $80 Million. It’s a project that has been in the works for well over a year, but the public only got a clear sense of what was involved after Burlington Council was safely re-elected in October. An examination by the Bay Observer of relevant staff reports and city news releases, suggests the public was deliberately kept in the dark about the magnitude and cost of the project until a point of no return (and the 2022 Municipal Election) had passed.

Council likely informed of mega project in December 2021

Until the city released its detailed plans for the property a month after the recent municipal election, the public had no idea of the magnitude of the project being contemplated, however it now appears council were likely given significant details, including a ballpark cost estimate, at an in-camera meeting in December 2021.  It was the December 2021 meeting that led to an integrity commissioner report that found Councillor Shawna Stolte had breached the code of conduct by stating in an open meeting the Bateman project “could cost in excess of $50 Million.” Her comment didn’t attract much media attention at the time, but in light of what transpired in the ensuing year, Stolte’s comment takes on additional significance. The fact that the integrity commissioner made a finding that Stolte had revealed information that was discussed in Camera is also an acknowledgement that the $50 million figure was presented at that meeting.  Two Councillors, Rory Nisan and Kelvin Galbraith moved quickly to launch a complaint to the IC which released its report in April confirming Stolte’s breach of the code. At that time the councillor pushed back against what she termed a pattern of excessive secrecy by Burlington Council writing, “I chose to share as much information as possible on issues where I strongly believed that important information was being inappropriately withheld from the public.” Stolte has not responded to questions from the Bay Observer about what she meant when she made her $50 million statement.

In the ensuing months following the Dec 6 2021 council meeting, as the project proceeded through its various stages, the public was never informed of the size or scope of what was being contemplated. Staff were allotted $3 million for what a report termed “ongoing due diligence, environmental, preliminary design, architectural, engineering and project management services for the phased adaptive re-use of the Robert Bateman High School Site.” There was no mention of what the adaptive re-use would entail, and indeed later in the report it was suggested that the work was being done in partnership with Brock University and would support the move of Brock’s satellite campus to Burlington which had been previously announced.

Public not given full picture of project

In January 2022 Council voted to formally authorize staff to pursue the purchase of the school. A City news release read, “In addition to the partnership with the HDSB and Brock University, the City also plans to partner with other institutions, ensuring that there is an adaptive reuse strategy for the site and to create a sustainable community hub. This includes the Burlington Library relocating its Appleby Line branch to this location to develop a place for learning and education and the relocation of TechPlace, a hub led by Burlington Economic Development, where the tech community can connect, develop and grow their business.” Arguably, the impression created was that Brock, HDSB, the Library and Tech Place would be the key components of the hub.

A public consultation on the property was undertaken. 120 persons participated in an online poll that confined itself to asking if respondents were in favour of the acquisition of the school, not mentioning the contemplated massive re-build. To the question, “Do you agree with the proposed land exchange where the city will transfer the Central high school football field to the HDSB and the HDSB will transfer Bateman High School to the city,” more than 80 percent were in favour. The question implied a straight swap, but as it turned out the “exchange” actually would cost the city nearly $8 million.

A slide deck made available to the public in June continued to make no reference to the magnitude or cost of the project. It showed the relocation of the Library, Brock, Tech Place and the leaseback of the shop portion of the school to the HDSB. The only bullets that gave a hint of the future plans were two that, under the heading “City of Burlington Needs,” were worded, “Provide flexible programming area (i.e. expanded community center” and another that read “create a sustainable signature community hub-focus on learning and active living.” There was no reference to the multi-million dollar construction that was actually being planned.

Around that time a list of frequently asked questions about the project were posted on the mayor’s website. One question asked about the $50 million figure referred to by Stolte asking if the figure was accurate. The Mayor’s answer read, “This does not reflect the actual dollar figure. Per the Integrity Commissioner’s report Council received in April 2022 concerning the Council-approved sanction of the Council member who inappropriately released a dollar figure related to this deal, that number released “ does not reflect the specific actual dollar figure” and further, “risks misleading the public.” Indeed the $50 million figure did not reflect the actual dollar figure—it was short by $30 Million. Another questioner asked. “What has the public been told by the City of Burlington or Mayor’s Office?” The answer: “the Mayor and the City have been releasing every bit of information available to be released publicly when they have been able to…other pieces of information have been kept confidential in order to protect the public’s interest in the process. As soon as any details can be released the publicly, they’ll be done so by the City.”

Deal finalized

Later that month Council gave the go-ahead to complete the purchase of the school. Again, the city news release confined itself to talking about the land swap with the Board of Education, the Brock relocation  the relocation of the Library, Tech Place, and the leaseback to HDSB–nothing else.

A week after the Municipal election the city announced the completion of the purchase of the school and land swap, again without mentioning the re-build and further, promising there would be a public consultation in 2023 to determine uses for the parts of the building not occupied by the tenants.

Finally on the 25th of November, the city announced the full scale of the project and the nearly $80 Million price tag. It was the first time most of the public had a clear picture of a project that had been in the works for more than a year.

Conclusions

There are several conclusions that can be drawn from the handling of this project:

  • Burlington council knew there was a big ticket construction project in the works throughout 2022 and made a decision not to share the plan with the public.
  • Staff reports and news releases on the Bateman project throughout 2022 were word-smithed to obfuscate the actual plan which was to create a state-of-the-art community centre costing tens of millions of dollars. The justifiable requirement to keep the sale price of the school confidential until the deal was done, was expanded to also shield the existence and magnitude of the community hub project from the public. The public had a right to know about the real nature of the hub plan. Knowing the existence of the plan and cost of the renovations should not have had any bearing on the negotiations to purchase the building.
  • The public consultation process was misleading, in that it confined itself to the acquisition of the school building only, which ended up being a small percentage of the overall cost of the proposed project.
  • Arguably the Integrity Commissioner was brought in to discourage Clr. Stolte from saying anything further that would reveal the actual size and scope of the project. It would be interesting to see what the Integrity Commissioner might have to say about the public information strategy that has accompanied this project.
  • It is not clear what the public will be consulted about in 2023, since the project has already been defined and costed, complete with architectural renderings.
  • It was reasonable to expect that there would be costs related to making the Bateman building suitable for its tenants—indeed the tenants are contributing $7 million of their own money for retrofitting–but a project of the size that has now been announced was a major strategic decision for a city the size of Burlington and there should have been much more fulsome public discussion. The public has now been presented with a fait-accompli that regardless of its merit and justification, shows a failure by council to take the residents of Burlington into their confidence on a major “city-building” project.

Next Steps

Staff are proposing an ambitious construction schedule that would see the building ready for occupancy in the fall of 2024, which means the project needs to go to tender as quickly as possible. The staff timetable calls for the contractor to be prequalified next month and the project tendered by next March.

In the presentation to council this week, staff acknowledged that the city’s borrowing power will be strained at times to flow the necessary funds and that it might be necessary for council to raise its self-imposed ceiling on debt.

3 Comments

  • I was late in seeing this article. I agree with it completely, and thank John Best for being the only local journalist willing to go into the weeds and report these disturbing facts. Burlington residents need to wake up. I am disgusted with what is happening at City Hall. In my opinion, transparency is completely non-existent, there is so much spin it is nauseatingly dizzying, and the idea that we citizens are listened to or engaged with is another fairy tale. The reaction by Councillors to citizens who speak up seems to be closing social media comments entirely (at least until election is over, right Rory Nisan?), deleting critical social media comments, and now we see Councillors telling their own constituents that they will henceforth stop all communication with them. This is outrageous and unacceptable and also, in my opinion, the complete opposite of what this Mayor and councillors promised back in 2018.

    PS: The useless surveys are not engagement tools. Stop pretending they are, especially when, as Best points out here, they don’t even tell us the relevant facts we need to have in order to answer them.

    • Replying to my own comment to say: there is another local journalist willing to dig further and not afraid to be critical of the City of Burlington, staff and council if need be – the Burlington Gazette. Apologies to Pepper Parr for seemingly forgetting him. But I am asking, where is the bigger media? Why do they simply regurgitate city press releases and statements? Where are the journalists asking difficult questions and digging into the full stories? Nowhere, it seems. They have the resources and the staff to do it, yet they never do. Why? Readers – support these smaller local papers, and skip the softball-lobbers. Has the Mayor ever had a press conference where media can ask questions? Don’t think so.

    • Agree, engagement and the polls are a farce. Not much else to say or do until the next election. Burlington the City that Spins and Spends.

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