Ottawa city council OKs outside review of Stage 2 LRT procurement, release of more documents

Ottawa city council has voted unanimously to have the City of Ottawa release all technical procurement documents for the Trillium Line extension that was awarded to SNC-Lavalin and to get an outside consultant to conduct an independent review of the city’s Stage 2 procurement process later this year.

Mayor Jim Watson and Coun. Shawn Menard tabled a motion with those demands at city council on Wednesday.

“ was forced on this council because people were demanding accountability,” Menard told reporters after the vote.

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In approving the motion, council members asked for the requested procurement documents to be released before the  city’s finance and economic development committee (FEDCO) next meets on March 3.

On top of that, council also agreed to waive its solicitor-client privilege so the released procurement documents could include a legal opinion provided on Oct. 23, 2018 that prompted senior city staff to keep SNC-Lavalin in the running for the major transit project when the engineering giant failed to get a passing grade in the evaluation of its written technical bid.

“We’ve confirmed with our lawyers that it would not do any damage to the city and I think it will probably give a better explanation as to their rationale for the support of the scoring system,” Watson told reporters.

Controversy surrounding SNC-Lavalin’s technical scoring exploded soon after city council voted 19-3 last year to award the company (operating under the name TransitNext) the $1.6-billion contract to design, build and maintain the Trillium Line to Riverside South. Council did so without knowing finer details about the bidders’ technical evaluations or city staff’s decision-making during the procurement process.

In late March, CBC News first reported that SNC-Lavalin didn’t meet the required 70-per cent grade in its technical evaluation to qualify for the project. Select technical documents and memos released by the city in the months since have confirmed this was the case – and that SNC-Lavalin failed to meet the 70-percent threshold a second time after its written submission was re-evaluated.

Those documents explained that an executive committee of senior city officials – without knowing SNC-Lavalin’s identity at the time – ultimately exercised discretion they had within the request for proposals to allow the bidder to move forward in the procurement process.

The executive committee made this decision based on legal advice and “to mitigate the city’s exposure to legal challenges,” according to documents released last summer  – but the municipality never released the meat of the legal opinion.

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Last month, Menard and Coun. Carol Anne Meehan gave notice of a motion calling for a third-party review of the Stage 2 LRT procurement process, but then Menard tabled a substitute motion with Watson on Wednesday.

Watson and Menard’s motion called for the scope of the independent review and a recommended consultant to be presented to FEDCO and city council for approval by the end of June and for the consultant’s report to be delivered, ideally, to those two bodies by November.

Watson suggested that independent review could address concerns about how the city’s external legal counsel for the procurement process, Norton Rose Fulbright, has – as a firm – also represented SNC-Lavalin.

“My understanding is, speaking with legal experts, that is permitted. There is that capacity within a law firm that has that specialization to serve more than one client,” he said.

“So these are the kinds of things I think we have to examine in the review bring an outsider to the table that would actually offer that unvarnished, unbiased point of view and see if we can get can’t do better in the subsequent procurement of Stage 3.”

Asked whether he had outstanding concerns of what happened behind the scenes during the Stage 2 procurement, Watson replied: “I still have confidence in the process.”

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Coun. Riley Brockington said he didn’t think Watson and Menard’s motion “goes far enough” because it doesn’t consider “the role and extent of delegated authority.”

“We can’t forget that council gave our staff a lot of authority here and we’ve been critical of the fact that they’ve made some decisions that we’ve allowed them to do,” Brockington said.

“So, for future stages of LRT, or even future major projects in the city where we delegate that authority to staff, that is an issue that this council that could be  one thing that we review as well.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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