Last Night in the People’s Chamber
Ron Bolin: Nov. 27, 2012
The COW meeting held last night in the City’s Council Chamber in the VICC saw a large and passionate attendance from those citizens of Nanaimo who are concerned about the recent announcement of a secret decision made by Council on Nov. 22, 2012, to remove the lower and middle dams in Colliery Dam Park. This action was taken due to the danger of serious property damage and probable loss of life in the Harewood flood plain should one or both of the dams fail in an earthquake or overflow due to excess rainfall or snow melt. This report followed another report from April of 2010 which was primarily limited to the danger to the dams from a large earthquake and was less detailed that the 2012 Associated Engineering report.
The Report signed off by Associated Engineering on September 12, 2012, contained the following overview and recommendations for handling the problem:
“The Middle and Lower Chase River Dams are located on the Chase River in the southern half of the City of Nanaimo. Both dams were constructed circa 1911, to provide reservoirs for the storage and withdrawal of wash water for the expanding coal mining industry in the Nanaimo area. After 1945, both dams were no longer used for water supply due to the cessation of coal mining in the area. In 1975, the two dams came under the ownership and control of the City of Nanaimo. Colliery Dams Park was established in the area around the dams, and the reservoirs and park are used for recreation, including hiking, some sport fishing, and passive activities.
Downstream of the Lower Dam, the Chase River ravine opens out into a generally flat floodplain, where the river channel is only slightly incised. This area extends roughly from Sixth Street to Eighth Street, north to south, and Howard Avenue to Park Avenue, west to east. Since the construction of the dams this area has urbanized and is now largely occupied by single family residential homes, but a large school (John Barsby Community High School) and a private daycare operation (Little Ferns Daycare) are also present only a short distance from the Chase River. Refer to Figure 1-1 (all figures are included in Appendix A) for an overview map of the study area. Crossings of the Chase River are located on, from upstream to downstream, Howard Avenue, Bruce Avenue, Seventh Street and Park Avenue.
Currently, both structures are classified as “Very High Consequence” under BC’s Dam Safety Regulation, due to the population present in the downstream floodplain areas. Previous reports have identified that neither dam meets the expected level of performance for flood or seismic safety, and both are considered to be at a level of risk outside the envelope of acceptable risk using generally applied standards (EBA, 2010).
Three general approaches are available to the City to address these issues:
- Complete removal of the dams.
- Partial mitigation of risk factors and acceptance of a higher degree of risk by the City’s stakeholders.
- Extensive mitigation of risk factors to bring them into compliance with the BC Dam Safety Regulation and Canadian Dam Association’s Dam Safety Guidelines. (end quote)”
On October 22, 2012, City Council met in-camera (in secret) and made decisions which were then communicated to the Head of the Dam Safety Branch on Oct. 29, noting that, at their Oct. 22 meeting it had been decided by Council that:
“At its In-Camera meeting of October 22nd, 2012, City of Nanaimo Council passed resolutions to:
“direct Staff to:
(1) Proceed with removal of the Middle and Lower Chase Dams, as soon as is reasonably practicable by:
- Engaging and engineering consultant by direct award to provide design, cost estimates, and oversee a contractor for the dam decommissioning and land resoration process;
- Obtaining the necessary approvals and permits to perform the work: and
- Exploring options and costs for restoring this section of the Chase River Valley to a naturalized state in keeping with the existing Colliery Dam Park uses.”
The agenda for the open Council meeting which appeared on Thursday, Oct. 25 noted that:
“5(b) Ms. Susan Clift, Director of Engineering & Public Works and Mr. Bill
Sims, Manager of Water Resources to provide a presentation regarding
the Colliery Dams.
And the minutes of that meeting reported that:
5(b) Ms. Susan Clift, Director of Engineering & Public Works and Mr. Bill Sims, Manager of Water Resources provided a PowerPoint presentation regarding the removal and naturalization of the Lower and Middle Colliery Dams and advised of public open houses to be held on November 5 and 8, 2012.
Note the critical difference between the agenda and the minutes. The announcement of the decision made on Oct. 22 was kept out of sight until the Oct. 29 meeting, thus preventing those who might have been interested or concerned from learning what it was that was going to be announced.
It was only at the meeting that the public learned that Council had made the decisions involved in the letter of Oct. 29 to the Dam Safety Branch. Neither the agenda nor the minutes of the meeting of October 29 provide any discussion of the dams or the park and only the video provides any content on this matter to the public. This underlines the critical importance of the video records of our Council and COW meetings. You can see the video at:
http://www.nanaimo.ca/meetings/VideoPlayer/Index/C121029V (Go to Presentations and, if you are in a hurry, move the slider to about 6 minutes into the video.)
Since that time there have been two open houses which emphasized how great Colliery Dam Park will be without the lakes (will the Park have to be renamed?)but avoided the presentation of the flood studies from the September 12 report by Associated Engineering. There has also, and wisely, been a public information campaign in the flood plain areas which might be affected and an attempt at establishing a warning protocol.
What has not been adequately disclosed is credible evidence of why a decision was made to choose only one of the three alternative corrective safety measures which were offered by Associated Engineering rather than exploring all three via an RFP (Request for Proposals) process. There are a number of rumours floating around about the reasons why the decision to remove the dams was made, apparently without adequate consideration of the alternatives. . None of these hold more water than the cost estimates upon which Council seems to base its decisionas under questioning at the Nov. 26 COW meeting, City Staff admitted that the cost estimates which had been provided in defence of the decision to remove the dams were, at best, the result of conversations rather than serious plans and were thus “iffy”, even if their best guesses.
It remains to be seen whether the meeting which Council proposed last night is to be in any way actionable given the City’s notice to the Dam Safety Branch or merely a sop during which Staff will attempt to advise these citizens of how well they have handled things. Councillor Bestwick was correct last night to try to clarify the nature of this proposed meeting, but the issue was voted back into ambiguity. One can only hope that this meeting will also be attended by some Councillors and some reporters from the news media.
Hopefully the City will at some point have some substantiated costs for the alternatives available to remedy this serious and long standing problem which will allow citizens to determine which they are willing to pay for.
Here is the link to the COW meeting of the 26th http://www.nanaimo.ca/meetings/VideoPlayer/Index/COW121126V . Delegations and question period are really worth watching. I really love question period because if given a to the point question one can usually get a to the point answer from staff.
Ron is absolutely right in that videotaping of Council and COW meetings is extremely important; far better than just minutes of the meetings. With the opening of the new annex there is no guarantee that COW meetings will continue to be taped; we need to ensure that they are.
“Engaging an engineering consultant by direct award to provide design, cost estimates, and oversee a contractor for the dam decommissioning and land restoration process;” — excerpt from what council approved staff to do. What does “direct award” mean?
That question aside, I am frustrated that yet another opportunity for the city to demonstrate leadership, expertise, exemplary process and participatory democracy on a significant issue has not materialized. I am also disheartened that the city still hasn’t demonstrated any strategic communications ability to anticipate public affairs consequences or provide accurate and consistent information dissemination, for example, if you watch the COW video near the end staff are asked about how property values would be affected. A staff member responds along the lines that any answer would be speculation, given all the factors that would need to be considered for individual properties; yet in the official Q&A version on the city website, we have this answer: “Removal of the dams and renaturalization of the Chase River should have no positive or negative impact on the property values of residents and business owners.”
It is only through frank and accurate information sharing that informed opinions and decisions can be shaped. Then accountability is demonstrated, trust built, and the public interest served.
So yes, we need to increase public access to information based on facts not best guesses or unsubstantiated opinion or spin, and push to have council on live feed and video recording of COW meetings at the new annex. They agreed to wire the room but not install cameras, I seem to recall.
Of course we could create a citizen’s Livestream group and with City wireless access in the annex could stream it live ourselves and provide playback. Quality would not be SHAW but the value of the communication would far outweigh the jerkiness. There should be no reason that this is not allowed.
Direct award means that the job is given by appointment. I have not yet discovered whether this appointment has already been made, but I assume it has. There are reasons why responsible organizations may avoid the competitive process involved in bidding or the Request for Proposal processes, but as far as I am aware, no reason for this direct appointment has been put forward.
You are quite correct that the City has avoided numerous opportunities to demonstrate leadership, and rather to demonstrate apparent arrogance. The Colliery Dam issue follows the decision to, for all intents and purposes, shut the public out of half of all Council meetings, the new Annex issue, the old annex issue, etc., etc. How we get past this situation remains to be seen. But it appears evident that the addition of a Communications Manager has not helped, at least this far.
Nanaimo has a large and relatively untapped mine of retirees with education and experience in a wide variety of areas. Tapping these resources is something to be considered.
First start with an alarmist Engineering Report that makes no remedial recommendations.
Next fabricate a demolition cost estimate at $7 million dollars.
Next insist on the secrecy of an in-camera meeting for budget approval.
Next conspire to avoid public scrutiny by direct award of a contract to a consulting engineer.
Next conspire to avoid using an RFP to select a contractor; use the direct award method
Next conspire to let the consultant select a contractor.
Next inform citizens that their property values have been ruined by your engineering report.
Next issue a misinformation document if the public asks questions.
Next if things go sideways insist that the process has gone too far to change direction.
Next hope that you do not become a witness for corruption practices.
Next the good people of Harewood demand a public inquiry by the judiciary.
One has to wonder if the contractor will be the same one who has benefited from previous no bid contracts?
This City has been in need of a public inquiry since Cable Bay & Jerry Berry.
How would one initiate such an inquiry?
It is easy to ask serious questions. Just write an email to Al Kenning, with cc: to Mayor and Council, asking whether this appointment has been made -or whatever you want to know and believe that you have a right to know. As you may have noted on Monday, they had not responded an earlier request. Following my repeating the question on video at COW I got an answer. Not a complete answer as they pleaded that they were waiting for further info, but an answer which I can keep track of.
The RFP (Request for Proposals) process is employed for very good reasons. It requires the solicitor of services to define the scope of a proposed project with a project definition. This should involve consultation with the public followed by Reports to Council before an RFP is ever issued.
The RFP typically requires proposal writers to outline a methodology for completing the work, including any and all site investigations which may be required.
The RFP Fee Proposal is built up based on the hours required to complete all of the tasks identified in the methodology. RFP’s for municipal services are advertised on municipal websites, BC bid, and in news papers.
The Municipality will receive many submissions. In this case a submission may run into a hundred pages of documentation. Submissions cost thousands of dollars to produce, and they are always serious propositions. Regardless of who is selected the Municipality benefits from the wealth of information it receives and is better able to define the issues to be resolved.
Staff recommendations are based on best value for money assuming a standard level of performance for all proposals. The RFP is a competitive process in this case among consulting engineers.