COMMENT: Who authorized $25,000 in architecture and engineering fees for a pool design council knew nothing about? The CAO must go!

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
January 6th, 2012

 Rossland, we have a problem. The end of 2011 was defined by a serious breach of democracy, a breach so egregious that it deserves the whole town’s attention.

As a taxpayer myself, I feel violated by this breach and feel it constitutes more than enough cause to terminate CAO Victor Kumar’s contract immediately.

Our mayor, furthermore, seems to have no problem with this gross miscarriage of democracy. On the contrary, he actively participated in it. He certainly looks like a mayorespecially when he dons tails and a top hat to complement his twirled moustache—but he has failed to act the part in this instance.

I refer to the delay tactics and untruths spun by CAO Victor Kumar (and endorsed by the mayor) to arm-twist council into supporting an outrageous grant application to fulfill Kumar’s personal plans for a $5 million four-season pool in Rossland. The facts of the case were reported in the Rossland Telegraph on Dec. 21.

Former Coun. Laurie Charlton’s recent opinion piece on the issue is also good reading, especially as he lays out the structure of the pool society, and how the mayor and CAO have falsely represented this structure.

I say “Kumar’s personal plans” because, to our knowledge, there was no consultation with Rossland’s council, and no expression of public support for the notion of a four-season pool. Yet, despite this yawning abyss in the public record, Kumar approached the offices of Matthes Architecture Inc. and Stantec Consulting Ltd. with his plans (and some $25,000 in taxpayer funds) and had them sketch up designs for his—not our—grant application.

Let’s call this legacy project the “Kumar Memorial Pool” (KMP).

To quickly review the facts, the “healthy communities” grant was specifically aimed at recreation facilities for small B.C. towns and was announced in early October. But council was not consulted for direction until five business days before the Dec. 28 application deadline.

The province explicitly suggested applications be capped at $400,000 to help spread the full grant amount of $30 million across as many communities as possible. But Kumar wrote the KMP grant application for $4 million—fully 13 per cent of the provincial pie.

Even in the best case scenario, Rossland taxpayers would have to pay at least $1 million towards the $5 million project, plus annual maintenance and operating fees.

Perhaps most devastating to Rosslanders, many other projects that  fit the grant criteria—skateparks, trails, parks, schoolyards, and more—projects with long histories of public consultation and support that now go begging.

Although four of the five councillors present on Dec. 19 expressed deep reservations, I was dismayed that only one voted against the proposal. It is time for our new council to grow a spine and show some leadership.

At Tuesday evening’s committee-of-the-whole meeting, Coun. Kathy Moore addressed the issue three times before she was finally given the cost of the engineering and architecture fees for the KMP grant application. On my tape I can barely hear Kumar’s mumbled reply: “$25,000, approximately.”

I can picture him in his standard council posture: dramatically slouched, frowning, hand partly covering his face, head turned away, rarely looking councillors in the eye, especially the ones he dislikes—like Coun. Moore, for whom he appears to reserve a special contempt in his tone of voice. I was astonished when I first encountered these insolent mannerisms, and now I am offended by the lack of respect he routinely displays for our democratic institution and our elected leaders.

Although council moved to another topic after his mumbled reply, Kumar returned to it after a moment’s thought:

“I want to clarify,” he said. “It wasn’t done for grant purposes. Since we were taking the pool over that year, an assessment [had] to be done either way. We were taking an asset from somebody else. We had to make sure that we knew what the shape of that asset was, before we go out and.” (The transcription is word-for-word.)

Moore replied, “I would think an analysis of what [the pool] looks like and what it needs is one thing, but an aquatic centre design with a covered roof and hot-tubs…”

Kumar cut off Moore mid-sentence: “There was minimum of the amount. Not $25,000. That was just a sketch. Most of those were just engineering and assessment of the pool. Both parties. What the deck looks like, what the mechanical looks like, what the electrical looks like. That’s all. The design was nothing. There’s nothing in there. That was just a sketch. Get it done for $1000. That wasn’t the issue.”

Moore said, “Hmm. Interesting.”

Kumar asserts that $25,000 was spent on an “assessment” of the current condition of the pool because control of the pool was handed over to the city—technically a society consisting of the CAO, the mayor, and one councillor, although no councillor has been appointed.

Furthermore, Kumar claims the “sketch” for a $4 million four-season pool grant application cost a mere “$1000.”

That’s odd. The first line of section 5 of Matthes Architecture’s report reads, “The upgraded design for the Rossland Pool facility is based on mandates given to Matthes Architecture Inc. by the City of Rossland to (1) have all public facilities on one level and fully accessible for persons with disabilities and (2) to enclose the entire Building to create a year round recreational facility.”

Was this a “City of Rossland” mandate? The firm inspected the pool on Nov. 4, long before any elected officials—besides the mayor—had any idea what was going on.

The first line of Stantec’s report reads, “The purpose of this report is to define structural, mechanical, and electrical requirements as related to the proposed renovation design presented by Robert Matthes Architect.”

Somehow, the term “assessment” isn’t featured in either report. I wonder if Matthes Architecture and Stantec Consulting would care to confirm that $1000, a mere four per cent of their design fee, was all that was required for the “renovation design” that appears to be the sole purpose of their reports?

Regardless of whether the design cost $1000 or $25,000, this spending was not authorized by council. In fact, none of the time Kumar spent pursuing the KMP plan was authorized by council. Neither the grant nor the KMP were considered until the eleventh hour—and let’s be clear here, it’s Kumar who plots the agenda.

As if democracy hadn’t been trounced enough, Kumar’s most recent affront was a meeting he called after Tuesday evening’s committee-of-the-whole. The press were sent packing … but they weren’t sent packing quite far enough. The meeting was unofficial and never declared “incamera,” so we deem its contents to be public fodder.

(Yes, Mr. Kumar, the walls have ears. And my “informant” is not Coun. Moore, nor any councillor, nor any city staff. You’ll just have to keep guessing, but you and council will know that what follows is a true representation of your meeting.)

Let’s face it: the pool grant was doomed from the get-go, but CAO Kumar now insists that, if it fails, (and it will,) it will be the fault of negative media coverage.

It certainly wouldn’t be the fact that little Rossland has applied for a whopping 13% of the funding the province allocated to rural communities across the entire province! It couldn’t be that the project will require a cash-strapped municipality to fork over millions for a pool even as we struggle to fund much-needed infrastructure projects. No, negative media coverage (a.k.a. honest and accurate) is to blame!

That’s not all, Kumar also blamed the media for the failure of the Columbia-Washington grants.

Oh yes? It wouldn’t have anything to do with an application for $8.5 million, far more than the province could be expected to spend on a municipality that generates far less in provincial taxes each year? This is far more, even, than the roughly $7 million that phases one and two are slated to cost Rossland after the Ministry of Transportation pitches in $1.4 million.

Kumar’s final message at the unofficial closed meeting was unambiguous for councillors who may have been under the impression that they were elected to lead the city. Kumar surveyed his troops and said, in essence, “loose lips sink ships,” emphasizing his perception that our politicians need to be far more secretive about the business of council.

So let me end with a couple rhetorical questions: Who did we elect to run the city? Do you recall electing CAO Victor Kumar?

No, none of us did, but nevertheless he has earned a reputation in this city and others as the “Victator.”

It is disheartening that only one councillor in the present council has identified the serious nature of this problem—and, more famously, Coun. Laurie Charlton did so in the previous council, albeit with questionable tactics.

So, dear taxpayers of Rossland, it is up to us to let council know that enough is enough: it is time for our councillors to demand, without compromise, their right to lead the city. It is time to tell the CAO to step into line. He is, after all, our employee.

Failing that, may we depose this despot as soon as possible, hopefully without incurring the financial wrath of his contract’s exorbitant “buy out” clause, and hopefully long before his contract is scheduled to terminate in the summer of 2014.

Categories: GeneralOp/EdPolitics

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