Former Sechelt mayor John Henderson defended the previous council’s handling of two capital projects after the Auditor General for Local Government (AGLG) released a damning report last week.
“Overall, I was disappointed with the tone, I was disappointed with what appears to be a focus on a few specific things within a much larger organization,” Henderson said in an interview Tuesday.
“Yes, the Water Resource Centre was so far the biggest infrastructure project in Sechelt, but there were a lot of things in that project that we did very, very well — in fact, the whole thing was done well,” Henderson said. “Bottom line is, I was really disappointed with the tone and the nature of the report.”
The AGLG listed several “concerning issues” with the $25-million wastewater treatment plant and a 2012 paving project in West Sechelt, concluding that council under Henderson “exposed taxpayers to unnecessary risks.”
“I categorically reject that,” Henderson said. “As a professional, as a chartered accountant, as a resident of Sechelt, I wouldn’t let that happen.”
Henderson said the AGLG report contains inaccurate information, conjecture, innuendo, information taken out of context, and opinions that were not supported by the facts.
In making eight recommendations for improvement to the current council, the AGLG failed to acknowledge that the previous council had already addressed “four or five” of the issues, he said.
Among the issues identified was the lack of a business case for the treatment plant project. In fact, Henderson said, “they built that assumption on what I consider to be an outdated model for capital procurement,” based on obtaining one professional opinion.
The District, he said, “got five business cases. Out of that we got to choose the one that we felt was best based on a whole range of criteria, and we ended up with a world-class facility at no cost to the general taxpayer.
“If you’re not on sewer in Sechelt, you’re not paying for that facility, and if you are on sewer, you’re paying for it out of the existing sewer fees. This is where the report tends to blend and misrepresent the case. A lot of the things that were done, of course they were done by staff and experts.”
Another issue was the absence of a written contract for the single-sourced paving work in West Sechelt.
“It’s interesting, because when we came into office, among many things we learned was that this had been the practice of the District for several years, because there was only one paving company, as I understand it,” Henderson said.
“Unfortunately the report is silent on the fact that we implemented a procurement policy, so we did it. Could it be better, could it be improved? Absolutely. But you can’t just make a wild assumption that this was done without care and attention. I was interested to read they acknowledged it came in under the budget we set.”
Two other areas identified in the report — policies for capital asset management and conflict of interest — were introduced in 2013 and 2014, he said. The AGLG report cited the 2014 conflict of interest policy, but noted it applied only to staff.
The AGLG’s recommendation to conduct a post-completion review of the wastewater plant was contemplated by the previous council, “so I’m happy that’s what they’re recommending. It’s best practices. But to come out as if it’s a revelation, something that hasn’t been contemplated, is not helpful.”
Henderson said he asked the AGLG office several times to let him review the report to ensure it gave a “complete and accurate” picture. “What they sent me was four or five extracts, like paragraphs or sentences out of the report, but they didn’t send me the report.”
Henderson said the concept of having a municipal auditor general undertake performance reviews to help local governments learn is a laudable goal, but many municipalities, he added, are not happy with the way the AGLG office has carried out the function.
“You learn in the spirit of collaboration. You don’t learn in a situation where suddenly a highly inflammatory report is dropped on us and we’re left scrambling trying to figure out why they said a lot of things they said.”
Under the heading of conflict of interest, the AGLG report referred to issues “raised by some local residents regarding the then-mayor’s participation in decision-making on the siting of the wastewater treatment plant, given that his home was in relatively close proximity to Lot L,” which was ultimately rejected as a site in favour of Ebbtide.
While the AGLG did not assess the allegations, as the matter is governed under the Community Charter, Mayor Bruce Milne said last week he would ask council to approve a process to determine if conflict of interest in fact occurred.
Henderson characterized the move as politics: “I’ve said time and again what the facts are. The whole thing is disturbing that it keeps coming back. It appears a few people are looking for something. Call it whatever you will, but ultimately I guess I just attribute this to politics.”
He said he fully supports the current council and “look forward to them getting on with their priorities and moving forward with it.
“If they feel it’s important to assess something that’s gone on in the past, that’s fine. I said in my last report to council in December, I look forward to people evaluating what we’ve done a year from now. I stand by that.”