Major changes are needed in the City of Vancouver’s procurement policies and processes. Here we get into some detail about the specific problems, and give some hints about what needs to change, and then ask you for ideas.
A lot of money is at stake in purchasing decisions by the City of Vancouver. For example, in 2014 alone, a total of $692 million was allocated to suppliers, up from $686 million in 2013. In contrast, the City spent $431 million on staff salaries and expenses last year and $419 million in 2013.
The City of Vancouver’s purchasing department takes several steps to circumvent a fair and transparent bidding process. These include password protecting tender documents and by selecting ‘pre-approved’ vendors to limit competitive and transparent bids.
The results of bids are not opened publicly. Only partial information is released months after a contract is awarded; only a subset of orders are shown on the City’s bid result webpage. An attempt to get bid information via a FOI request can result in outright refusal from the City (at least in our experience). Records requested via FOI are sometimes only released in a redacted form, after a protracted fight that requires the intervention of B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner (OPIC).
The City’s Purchasing Department is now making frequent use of password protecting tender documents. The following Request for Proposals (RFPs) that were active on October 1, 2015 had password protected documents. Members of the public could not read the RFPs:
- Killarney Seniors Centre Design-Build
- Construction Services for Norquay and Strathcona Kitchen Reonvations
- Construction of Hillcrest Park and Renovations to Riley Park
- VanDusen Rammed Earth Wall Repair
How does the City justify password protecting tender documents and excluding vendors? One way they do it is to make a first round of bids for ‘prequalified vendors’ for a range of services. After the prequalified vendors are chosen, then the City can effectively hide the details of subsequent bids. Here is a recent list of requests for prequalified vendor proposals:
- Prequalification of Sweeping Services for Leaf Removal
- Prequalification for Contracts to Provide Street Civil Works Services
- Prequalification of Project Management Consultants for Civil Infrastructure Design and Construction Projects
- Prequalification of Transportation Consultants
The prequalification process essentially reduces competition. The password protection of RFPs also allows the City to hold information meetings in secret with a few preapproved parties.
The City of Vancouver’s purchasing department is in dire need of a complete overhaul. We’ve looked at several case studies. The following piece is a comparison with Toronto:
Indefensible secrecy in City’s bid decisions? Compare Vancouver vs Toronto. Case in point: $8.51 million bid (3-year contract, supply of traffic control services) (July 19, 2014)
There are multi-year contracts that appear on City Council agendas; for example, three contracts were considered at a meeting on May 14, 2014. Multi-year contracts could be bad policy if they reduce competition and flexibility and end up costing taxpayers more.
The City has also made the purchasing webpages off limits for Search Engines. The proposals are hosted under the former.vancouver.ca domain. City staff have deliberately put a robots.txt file in the top directory of the ‘former’ site in order to stop search engines from indexing bids and Council documents.
Sole Source Awards
Cause & Affect Design Ltd. was awarded $10,000 for a “PechaKucha Night Vancouver Event” contract in June 2015. Was this emergency graphic design? Or was it a task that City staff could have done?
Robert (Bob) Ransford received an $80,000 sole source award in May 2015 to “Develop and Implement Communications Strategy and Plan.” (a contract executed by the City of Vancouver but paid for by TransLink)
M Thompson Consulting received $59,930 for the “2015 Homeless Count”; was this another task that could have been done by staff?
In August 2015, Global Philanthropic Inc. received $20,000 for a “Museum of Vancouver Fund Development Plan” while illuminata Marking Inc. was given another $20,000 sole source award for a “Museum of Vancouver Target Audience Study” purchase.
The City’s bid committee consists of 3 members: (a) The City Manager, (b) The Director of Finance and (c) a Voting Department Head (whose budget will be totally or partially funding the award) as per section 12.1 of the Procurement Policy. In other words, two of the three committee members will always be the same (the City Manager and Director of Finance). The committee is composed solely of senior City bureaucrats. Could a lack of public oversight and transparency create an ideal climate to foster corruption and complacency? The involvement of residents could really shine the light of transparency through the procurement process.
Mandatory meetings and short deadlines
We noted short deadlines in some purchasing decisions in a previous post:
An item was posted on the City’s site on March 3, 2014 and it required registration for a mandatory meeting by noon of March 6, 2014 (3 days later): https://cityhallwatch.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/w2_bid_deadlines.jpg.
Is the bidding system gamed to favour certain contractors?
The City is known to issue a bid with a deadline (sometimes 2-3 weeks), but hidden in the text of the PDF bid document is the requirement for interested parties to attend a mandatory meeting. In order to attend the mandatory meeting, the interested party must register ahead of time (usually by a day). If an interested party does not attend the mandatory meeting, then they’re out of luck. The purchasing department may disqualify them from even bidding. Why does the City want to reduce competition? Here’s a documented example: Woodward’s Cultural Space RFEOI closes June 25th. Did the word get out about bidding for the lease? (June 24, 2013)
Lobbyist registry and connections
There is no lobbyist registry in Vancouver. Are there certain firms with connections with the ruling party that are awarded contracts? We found a number of these in our on the 2013 and 2014 list of suppliers. There were also no-bid contracts awarded to firms with connections to Vision Vancouver that exceeded value requirements that should have mandated an open bidding process.
One final area that needs particular scrutiny is the manner that the City acquires and sells off real estate. In the case of 1460 Howe (WestBank’s “Vancouver House”), the City land that made up around 80% of the area of this site was sold off for less than another buyer would have offered (this is on record at the Public Hearing). The controversial sale of the 508 Helmcken site beside Emery Barnes Park to Brenhill may have been significantly below market value.
There’s the issue with the sale of the Granville loops site (East Loop with former Continental Hotel). The details of an Aquatic Centre replacement were buried in the paper bid document that had to be picked up in person from the City.
In short, the lack of transparency in purchasing and the huge sums of money involved should be of great concern to Vancouver taxpayers. Residents deserve much better. Is the City potentially throwing away tens of millions of dollars annually as a direct result of a non-transparent purchasing process? Who benefits? Who should intervene to create more transparency and accountability in our municipal government? Which public or civic bodies would have the mandate and resources to make this happen? It could take a persistent, well organized effort to make change happen. There is resistance to change this entrenched system at City Hall, but external pressure may be the only solution, and though the senior officials may resist, in the long run it would be better for the health of our civic government. If you have ideas on this, please send us an e-mail to CityHallWatch, at citizenYVR@gmail.com.