City's Lansdowne consulting firm earned $2.8M on sole-sourced contract

on .

By David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen

Only one firm could help the city government navigate its deal with private developers to renovate Lansdowne Park, according to the top city manager, and it doesn't come cheap.

The company: Graham Bird & Associates. The price tag: $2.8 million (and maybe more). Competition for the work: None.

Documents obtained for the Citizen by access-to-information specialist Ken Rubin say Bird's firm is to be paid $1.776 million for its work on the Lansdowne redevelopment plan between July 2010 and the end of December 2013, broken into chunks that match the project's stages. With sales tax of $230,879.99, the bill for the 3½ years of work is $2,006,879,99.

Bird and his team worked on the file before that, though, and e-mails between city purchasing officials trying to decide how to bill for and record the work indicate that there's an "invoice history" up to June 2010 of $792,341, suggesting a grand total of about $2.8 million.

The documents predate the project's conclusion date slipping by two years, but in a written statement city spokesman Michael FitzPatrick said the longer timeline shouldn't mean the city pays more money: "The overall cost of the contract will not increase regardless of the schedule delay," he wrote.

Bird wouldn't speak to the Citizen to discuss just what the city gets for the money, but of course it doesn't just buy the services of Graham Bird himself: he's the head of a consulting firm with seven staff listed on its website, and they all need to be paid.

They're not nobodies, either: their communications specialist, for instance, is Kathryn Hendrick, a former vice-president of the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group who joined Bird after the firm managed the reconstruction of the Royal Ottawa Hospital on Carling Avenue. And it's a bill covering about four years of work, including generating many of the Lansdowne partnership's key reports and documents, not just providing general advice.

"From my perspective, the city requires expertise when we get into complex developments, which rely on pro formas, lease rates . we have very little expertise in that," said Councillor Peter Hume, city council's political point man on Lansdowne. The city needs someone who understands how commercial developments work from the inside, he said, someone who's capable of playing hardball with people who've made their fortunes in the development business. "We need someone who can bring understanding of how the private sector would see the situation."

Hume pointed to the Bell Sensplex, a $25-million sports complex in the west end, a joint venture with the Ottawa Senators and other partners. It missed revenue targets and needed a id="mce_marker".6-million infusion from the city in 2007.

"When you're looking at a privatesector proposal, you need guys with private-sector experience," Hume said. The Lansdowne plan involves retail, residential and office space, sports teams, major infrastructure investments - all sorts of things the city has little in-house practice with. And so whenever there's a consequential decision to be made on Lansdowne, Bird is in one of the hot seats facing city councillors, taking questions himself and usually within whispering distance of the city's top manager, Kent Kirkpatrick.

As in the Lansdowne deal with OSEG, however, Bird and his team didn't have to compete with anybody to make a deal with the city. The contract was "sole-sourced," meaning Kirkpatrick signed off on giving the business to Bird's firm without putting it up for bids. The rationale is in the released documents:

"Graham Bird and Associates (GBA) is in a unique position to fulfill the requirement of this contract as they have a proven track record of leading other similarly challenging projects in the Ottawa area, including the Ottawa Convention Centre, the Algonquin College Expansion and the new Royal Ottawa Mental Health Care facility. With each of these projects, GBA drew upon their extensive development and technical knowledge, as well as their positive working relationships with key stakeholders, including business professionals, administrators, government officials and politicians, to successfully complete them in a timely fashion - despite the projects' complexities and the challenging environments in which they were operating.

"The experiences GBA gained from those previous projects make them ideally suited to undertake this project: coordinating the involvement of various levels of government and other governmental agencies; managing diverse and varied technical, legal and financial issues; handling associated communications and public relations duties; building consensus amongst numerous stakeholder groups; and, operating under tight deadlines."

Nobody else does work like this on this scale, so Bird's firm is the only choice. But then, if Bird's firm is seen as the only choice by the public officials doing the choosing, nobody else will ever get to be in the running.

Hume says he could think of "maybe three or four" people in Ottawa who'd be qualified for the work, but the list gets pared down by conflicts of interest. There's Robert Tennant, for instance, the managing partner of the FoTenn urbandesign firm . but he's on the board of the National Capital Commission, which is a player in the Lansdowne plans because of its adjacent parkway and the Rideau Canal.

"It's not a long list to choose from," Hume says.

Bird's team unquestionably has an extraordinary portfolio to show off. They've been involved in the new convention centre, the new terminal at the airport, the World Exchange complex, the new headquarters for Canada Post - even the new national firefighters' memorial on LeBreton Flats.

If Bird hadn't signed up to work for the city on Lansdowne, he'd have been an obvious candidate to represent the private developers. As it is, they have a vice-president in their consortium, Bronwen Heins, formerly in charge of the Kanata Research Park high-tech development, to manage the project's nitty-gritty.

Bird, a Queen's-educated engineer, served two terms on Ottawa city council in the early 1980s, representing Elmdale ward (roughly, the Civic Hospital and Hintonburg neighbourhoods), and ran for the provincial Tories twice in Ottawa Centre after that, finishing second both times. Hume said it doesn't hurt Bird that he knows what it's like to be a politician.

In 2002, the provincial Progressive Conservatives named him the chair of Ottawa's community-care access centre, the agency that co-ordinates home health-care services like physiotherapy and nurses' visits. What followed were a tempestuous two years as he struggled simultaneously to modernize the agency's archaic record-keeping and administration and to apply provincial policies aimed at bringing the private sector into the home-care industry.

The newly elected Liberals dismissed him in 2004 following a damning report that accused him of being "disruptive" and being "too involved in the day-to-day operations" at the agency.

It didn't help that at the very same time, Bird was orchestrating the $100-million construction of a new building for the Royal Ottawa, a project that not only contracted out the construction work on the facility (as was common) but also the long-term operating and maintenance of the building (which infuriated public-sector unions and advocates of public health care more generally). Since then, Bird has focused on construction projects and stayed out of overtly political jobs, though he does give money in political campaigns, via his companies - including the maximum $750 to Mayor Jim Watson's election effort and $500 to Hume last year.

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