Advisory Committees should provide advice, but the City of London’s struggle with this issue may result in painful repercussions that have plagued another nearby city. Controversies with secrecy that have resulted in massive legal headaches and huge costs in the City of Hamilton demonstrate that a refusal to accept independent advice can be catastrophic.
I was appointed to two City of London advisory committees this past summer. The restrictions imposed by the City’s staff as to what could be discussed and what actions the committees could take caused me to hand in my early resignation. The following provides a summary of my, unfortunately, short relationship with the City. I also provide a discussion of the woes experienced by the City of Hamilton and how the City of London may experience similar problems.
It seemed natural that the City of London would request the voluntary help of seasoned professionals who could provide useful advice with respect to its operations. Thus the creation of advisory committees of such persons seemed logical. Therefore I accepted my appointments to two of the committees, the Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC) and the Community Safety and Crime Prevention Committee (CSCP) in the belief that my 39 years of experience in these areas would benefit the City and this would also give me satisfaction that I was contributing something worthwhile.
Not ever being a part of such committees I attended three meetings of the TAC, July, August and September, and simply listened to get the feel for the procedures. I noticed that nothing much was happening. Almost all the members were new. I learned that there had been some rearrangements of the committees in the spring. There were a number of resignations of past members and this was the reason for all the new appointees. While a few presentations were made by City staff in those first meetings, none of the committee members appeared to contribute their own materials, called submissions. I approached a number of members and spoke to them briefly. But it seemed unusual that the City did not prepare any orientation session or provide any contact information so that members could communicate with each other outside of the meetings.
September 26th was the first meeting of the new members of the CSCP. Because of my many years of involvement in road safety and collision reconstruction I was looking to making an impact. In that meeting I quickly made acquaintances with several members and it was all very positive. Almost all the members were new to the committee. I spoke briefly with the City’s Staff secretary who was also very positive about the new members and she was looking forward to our future work. Unfortunately I only had this one chance to attend the CSCP meeting because they only meet every two months. This seemed like a rather lengthy gap between meetings as the issues of community safety and crime prevention would seem to be important and needing independent input.
I finally became involved by writing a submission to the agenda for the TAC meeting in late October. This submission is attached in a link, along with two others, further in this article. In this initial submission I wrote about some of the technical procedures I have come to dependent on in my many years of road safety research and collision reconstruction. I believed these procedures could apply to the work of the TAC because they dealt with obtaining objective data – the kind of thing that committee members would need if they were to properly advise City staff and politicians. It has always been my view that everyone can have an opinion, but the worthwhile ones are supported by objective facts and data. I was quite surprised when I received a reply from the Committee’s secretary, a City Staff employee, that my submission was beyond the scope of the Committee, specifically Committee members were not allowed to conduct “field studies”. This sounded very odd. A brief exchange of e-mails occurred with the City Clerk’s Office from which I could not obtain a logical explanation. But I moved on.
For the November meeting of TAC I produced another submission. This had to do with traffic volumes along arterial roadways in the north-east area of London. Since I had been conducting independent research in that area for 10 years I had substantial data on traffic volumes and patterns. But I checked with our Committee chairman to make sure this discussion would not be deemed beyond the committee’s scope. He reviewed the material and concluded it should be within our scope. He believed this document could be a starting point to generate a discussion amongst members to get them involved in issues of future traffic planning.
At the same time I prepared a submission to the November CSCP meeting. This dealt with posted speed reductions in school zones and the fact that my field studies showed that drivers were not reducing their speeds in those zones.
I was taken aback once again when the City Clerk’s Office sent me another e-mail indicating that my submission to the TAC was not appropriate as it should have been sent to “Civic Administration prior to being considered for inclusion on the agenda “. Strangely, the e-mail also indicated that I should “consider whether any pecuniary interest would apply to your submissions”. In a sense the Clerk’s Office was suggesting that these submissions were somehow tied to some special interest or benefit that I would gain. I noticed that the secretary for the CSCP also removed my submission from the upcoming agenda. It was at this point that I made up my mind that our relationship was done.
I now submit (below) the three submissions that were rejected by the City Clerk’s office.
In these dealings I detected an unreasonable level of concern, bordering on paranoia, within the City’s administration with respect to information being made public that they themselves did not generate. The topics I had raised in my three submissions were quite remote from any criticism of the City’s actions, and in fact, would be considered by any objective outsider, as directly related to the scope of the two advisory committees. Yet I sensed that there was an over-riding need by the City to maintain complete control over what may be openly discussed. This becomes paralyzing with respect to the functioning of its advisory committees. If the City has full control over what is said then it prevents minor problems from being detected, allowing actions to move forward into advanced stages where uncorrected errors could result in major legal and cost consequences. The results of these actions are not always benign as the City of Hamilton has recently found out.
Two extremely damaging incidents have occurred involving the City of Hamilton’s Administration which have also netted some members of its city council. Firstly, in February, 2019, a story broke out of the disappearance of a report, authored by Tradewind Scientific, whose 2013 testing revealed that below-standard surface friction existed along the City’s Red Hill Valley Parkway (RHVP). When the existence of the report was uncovered in the fall of 2018 no one could explain how it became “lost” in the first place. This caused the belief by many that the report was purposely hidden by persons unknown as its results would be damaging to the City particularly because of several collisions, some fatal, suggesting low surface friction may have been a factor. This relationship between suspicious collisions and the lost report could not be any more damning. This led to the filing of a $250 million dollar class-action lawsuit against the City of Hamilton.
In fact the finding that low surface friction existed on the RHVP could have been defended as low friction was likely not the only causal factor in the collisions. A comparison had been made between collisions on the Lincoln Alexander Parkway (LAP) and the RHVP and it was reported that the number of collisions on the RHVP was much higher. However the difference in the geometry of the two Parkways was never considered. The geometry of the RHVP contained significant horizontal and vertical curves while the LAP was level and straight. For collision occurrence this is a major factor, and pointing this out could have lessened the consequences to the City. But if the Tradewinds report was purposely hidden then this could prove to be disastrous to the defense and the City’s tax payers.
A second revelation was uncovered just this week by the Hamilton Spectator Newspaper that the City’s council and its administration knew of a sewage leak that reportedly spilled an estimated 24 billion litres of raw sewage into a Hamilton Creek. The Spectator indicated that “An overflow take gate was partly open for four-and-a-half years”.
The Spectator made the following comments in its November 24th article:
What did the city tell (and not tell) the public?
The city told the public about the spill in July 2018 and posted warning signs around the popular paddling spot, but the full magnitude of the disaster was kept under wraps.
Staff and outside legal counsel advised council against publicizing the estimated 24-billion-litre volume and more-than-four-year span, as well as releasing consulting reports.
The rationale was that doing so could expose the city to financial risk amid a Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks investigation with potential fines of as high as $6 million.
What’s the political fallout?
Councillors say they opted for secrecy to protect taxpayers from financial liability, citing the legal advice they received.
All members of council voted in favour of confidentiality, but three councillors — Nrinder Nann, Maureen Wilson and John-Paul Danko — also cast dissenting votes at various times.
If the courts in Ontario are not corrupt they will right the ship, providing a firm indication that municipal secrecy that endangers the public cannot be tolerated.
But what should be most alarming is the actions of legal counsel who advised the City of Hamilton to follow the route of secrecy. And that the City’s elected representatives followed that advice, especially when they should have been aware of the already damning issues related to the hiding of the Tradewinds Scientific report discussed above. The repercussions of these decisions are unlikely to be felt by the lawyers and City politicians. They will be felt by the taxpayers who will be on the hook to pay, not only the legal costs, but all the other costs to sort out the mess of both controversies.
While it is not known what relationship exists between the City of Hamilton and any independent advisory committees they might have, it can be seen how such committees might have been helpful in drawing attention to problems at an early stage. A review of the City’s actions might have caught something such as a missing report, or a malfunctioning piece of sewage equipment, and a correction might have been made earlier than the 4 or more years of delay in the two noted incidents. Instead of being dangerous to a city’s operations, independent advisory committees can provide guidance and opinions that may not necessarily be what City representatives want to hear. But that results in a set of checks and balances that is good for the city. Regrettably, the City of Hamilton may have to pay huge amounts in legal costs, and numerous other costs associated with the actions of its representatives.
It is clear to me that the City of London is struggling whether to follow the lead of its counterparts in Hamilton. Up to now I have observed that London’s representatives appear to have chosen the path of secrecy. They have chosen to remove the three submissions I made and that is their choice to make. However I decided not to be a part of this process as I believe it is wrongheaded and will likely lead to the same grave circumstances that the City of Hamilton is currently experiencing.