Thursday, June 4, 2009

How John Baird Railroaded the City of Ottawa

As we listened to the influence tampering trial of Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien, it brings to mind the complicity of John Baird, who used his own influence to railroad the citizens of Ottawa.

John Baird cannot be trusted
Rational Reasons
January 8, 2007

Apparently, back in October, John Baird, then President of the Treasury Board, went against the advice of his own staff and withheld federal funding for Ottawa's light-rail project for political purposes.

Baird's own professional staff reviewed the contract and the project and found it to be well justified, as did the staff of at least two other departments:

The effect of his interference was twofold. First, it changed the debate of the Ottawa Mayoral race to light rail and taxes, boosting Baird's friend and fellow conservative Larry O'Brien, while damaging the campaign of Mayor Bob Chiarelli, a longtime Baird foe.

Secondly, as a result of this battle, the entire light-rail project was killed by a vote of the new council and Mayor Larry O'Brien, who defeated Chairelli in November. Since a signed contract was already in place, the City has now been opened up to possible lawsuits from Siemens, the company that was to build the LRT, in the nieghbourhood of hundreds of millions.

In other words, our new Environment Minister is personally responsible for the destruction of an environmentally friendly public transit project that would have removed hundreds if not thousands of cars off of the streets of Ottawa (thus reducing pollution and green house gasses) in order to interfere in a municipal election to help elect a fellow conservative.

Baird's rail ruling was political, documents show
Decision to pull back funding made despite Treasury Board, Finance support for project
Mohammed Adam,
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, January 06, 2007

Treasury Board and Department of Finance officials were satisfied with the City of Ottawa's $880-million commuter rail plan, but federal minister John Baird took it upon himself to ask for a financial audit that led to the delay and subsequent death of the project, documents obtained by the Citizen show.

Documents secured from the Ontario government's cabinet office through access-to-information laws appear to confirm widespread belief in Ottawa that Mr. Baird's intervention in October was done for political reasons.

Among the documents, a confidential briefing note for Premier Dalton McGuinty, chides Mr. Baird for his "unusual" intervention, pointing out that the city presented a "strong justification" for the project.

"Treasury Board and Finance officials did not request a value for money audit, and Transport and Infrastructure Canada officials and the Minister were satisfied enough with the project to sign off on it to go to TB," the briefing note said.

"He (Mr. Baird) is effectively saying that he is a better judge of value-for-money than the experts in the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Department of Finance, and the Treasury Board Secretariat."

Mr. Baird, appointed federal environment minister in a cabinet shuffle Thursday, caused a big stir in the middle of last fall's municipal election campaign when, as Treasury Board president, he delayed approval of the rail project until after the election. Amid accusations he was unfairly interfering in municipal politics, Mr. Baird said a financial audit he commissioned revealed potential cost overruns that he could not ignore as the federal government's financial watchdog.

To ensure public accountability, Mr. Baird said he delayed the project to give the new council the chance for a second look.

However, the new council killed the decade-old project, and many councillors blamed Mr. Baird for its demise. Some rail supporters charged that in an apparent effort to undermine long-time political foe Bob Chiarelli, Mr. Baird diminished the city's economic potential and set it back decades.

But in a year-end interview with the Citizen, Mr. Baird expressed no regrets for his actions and refused to take any blame for the death of the 30-kilometre line from the University of Ottawa to Barrhaven. Mr. Baird said he was doing his job to bring greater scrutiny to public spending and sees nothing to apologize for.

He said the delay "empowered" taxpayers and voters who took the opportunity to speak clearly on the issue through the people they elected to council. The new council made the decision to kill the project and has to live with it.

"I just felt very uncomfortable signing off five weeks before election day on such a big project. I thought a $1-billion project to be delayed for 60 days is no big deal," he said.

However, according to the documents obtained for the Citizen by researcher Ken Rubin, public servants in the Ontario government cabinet office took a harsher view of Mr. Baird's action. While acknowledging the need for the city to make a business case for the project and provide a cost-benefit analysis, provincial officials say the city passed the test. They noted that the project wouldn't even have landed on the Treasury Board agenda without numerous consultations to convince key departmental officials that "the federal government was receiving value for money."

Baird's rail ruling was political, documents show:

In particular, cabinet officials took umbrage at the impression left by Mr. Baird that "due diligence" was not done, pointing out that "federal officials have been performing due diligence for two years" on the project.

"This is the only circumstance known of in Ontario where a Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund contract was revisited after being awarded," the documents lamented.

They were prepared in the wake of the controversy that followed Mr. Baird's intervention, to advise the premier on how to respond to questions on the project. Mr. McGuinty was to assure Ottawans that Ontario's $200 million was still on the table and to point out as well that in the three years between 2004 and last year, Ottawa received more than $82 million in provincial gas tax funds.

But the documents also revealed a wrinkle that was not widely known at the time: The extension of the line to the University of Ottawa would have required another, potentially project-delaying environmental assessment.

"Further provincial and federal environmental assessment approval will be required for the planned extension of the LRT line to the University of Ottawa, as this is outside the scope of the project as defined in the original approvals," provincial officials wrote.

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