Grant applications cause more head-butting in council

Andrew Bennett
By Andrew Bennett
May 31st, 2012

As new grant applications surface in council chambers in the wake of the controversial application for a four-season swimming pool last December, council has been grappling with questions around process and policy.

Last December’s grant application for a four-season swimming pool was presented to council only days before the deadline, with very little room for council to offer changes or suggestions, and no room for council to redirect efforts towards an alternative project. City staff had been working on the grant without direct approval from council since September.

Although the mayor apologized in January for “dropping the ball” in terms of council participation in the grant application process, some councillors were concerned on Monday evening that the same pattern of last-minute grant application approvals has repeated itself: a new application under the Gas Tax Agreement was presented to council only days before these grants will be due on May 31.

Later in the evening, Coun. Kathy Moore also raised CAO Victor Kumar’s quarterly report in which Kumar said the city would reapply for the swimming pool grant, should a recreation grant opportunity come again—a proposition that Moore disagreed with “categorically.”

The content of the recent Gas Tax Agreement grant was not debated—some $1.4 million in “phase 2” infrastructure upgrades to Washington St.—but rather the last minute approval process.

Moore said, “After we went through the whole situation with the recreation agreement in the fall … it would have been nice to have this at a previous council meeting.”

She called it a “matter of process” that was unrelated to whether or not she agreed with the content of the application. She said that the “option 2 and option 3” presented by staff “aren’t even valid [because] we don’t have time to do any of those things.”

“I thought we had a commitment that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen,” she said.

Coun. Kathy Wallace countered, “There was a resolution from council on Mar. 12 recommending that [staff prepare an application] for this project. It’s not as if it’s coming out of nowhere.”

Moore replied, “I appreciate that, but we have to be careful.”

Moore agreed that council had given the green light to staff in March—separating this instance from the swimming pool controversy in which no council approval to apply the grant to a four-season swimming pool had been solicited—but Moore said council still needed “plenty of time” to review the final application before approving it.

Moore said she was “disturbed” it had been “left right to the deadline again,” particularly since the application was very similar to one approved by the previous council last year. It was therefore was relatively easy to produce and staff had had since March to prepare it, she argued.

Mayor Granstrom responded, “I think it’s very important to note that council made a resolution to proceed with this. If any councillor had any idea to do something different, they’ve had since March to do it.”

Moore said, “I think my point is being missed.”

The mayor replied, “I don’t think that it is.”

Moore said, “It is, because we said we wanted to do it, but we [also] wanted to see what was being done.”

The mayor interjected, “Excuse me, excuse me. I think we instructed staff to proceed, and that is staff’s job.”

Coun. Jill Spearn entered the discussion: “I actually wrote the same or similar comments,” she said, “so I do concur with Coun. Moore.”

“I understand we did direct staff,” Spearn said. “But if we wanted to have a different choice [we didn’t have that option], so I don’t disagree with her. Even one council meeting sooner, two weeks, so if we did have any further comments … or if we wanted to choose a different option. I would like to see that process come to us a little sooner … I don’t think it’s being unreasonable.”

The mayor responded, “I think it’s important for council to note that if we make a resolution to staff, they’re going to proceed … If two weeks makes the difference, then so be it.”

Coun. Jody Blomme said, “I agree in principle that the earliest week to review things, the better—it’s a fair amount of reading in just a few days. I also definitely agree, we said ‘do this.'”

“In this particular instance, I think we’re still okay,” Blomme said. “There are still two days. If we saw things that needed tweaking, it’s editable in the two day or three day time period. … We still slip by. They did take a council resolution and acted on it.”

Blomme added, “To avoid this discussion at a future date, what can we do to ensure that we do get things, grant applications, even just notification of a grant application and that the deadline is coming up? If we could get that as soon as possible, that would be nice.”

The mayor suggested that if council wants to review applications earlier, that council should specify such constraints in the resolution.

“I like that idea a lot,” Moore said. “I’m sorry we feel that’s necessary.” Moore reiterated that the recommendation made in March is separate from council’s final approval.

Using a hypothetical example to elucidate her point, she said, “What if the motion we had passed [in March] had said ‘recommendation to prepare an application for improvements to the swimming pool.’ Then we get, on May 28 with a May 31 deadline, an application for a large improvement to the swimming pool that was not what we contemplated?”

“What we thought we were talking about,” Moore said, continuing the hypothetical example, “was some small modest improvements under $400,000, but what we got was a program for $4 million. You can see where this exact same thing could happen again unless we have the understanding, with staff, and with your [the mayor’s] leadership … that we have time to look at [the grants.] That’s all I’m asking.”

The mayor replied, “No one is disputing that. Your issue is with process. As I said before, perhaps we should phrase the resolution to reflect that.”

Coun. Kathy Wallace had the final word in this discussion: “I don’t think that we should expect staff to know that this is our expectation,” she said. “Staff levels are about as tight as we can get them, there’s one heck of a project out there, and our staff are busy.”

Later in the evening, Moore raised a separate but related topic from the CAO’s quarterly report.

“It gives us all great insight into the progress being made in the city,” Moore said, offering her appreciation for the report, but she also said another part of the report “got my hackles up.” In particular, Moore was “disturbed” by “the suggestion that we reapply for the pool grant if there’s another round [with the recreation grant.]”

“I would say categorically, no, we would not reapply for the pool grant the way it was written,” Moore said, “not without a thorough discussion with council and plenty of time in advance of the grant.”

Moore added, “We should actually have that discussion—what we want to do with a recreation grant, should funding apply.” Moore suggested a “shelf-ready” project for a recreation grant be prepared ahead of time.

She finished, “Can I get some commitment that it will be addressed?”

The mayor said, “We will discuss the grant before we reapply.”

CAO Victor Kumar interjected, “Your worship, if I may. Would you like to shut the pool down?”

The mayor began to respond, “Well, I, …” but Kumar continued, “You have to answer that, it’s a public…

The mayor jumped in, “We will have that discussion,” but Kumar continued again, “No, your worship, it seems it’s an attack on staff. We’re trying to improve infrastructure for the city. If the pool is not in good shape, at the end of the day you will have to make that decision. So, at some point in time your worship, you have to—as a city—you have to decide what to do with the pool.”

“Correct,” the mayor replied, “and I don’t think anyone’s disputing that. I think we’ll have that discussion.”

“Then the phrasing of the report needs to be changed,” Moore added, “We’ll have a discussion, not that we’ll reapply for the pool grant. Okay?”

“Yes, councillor,” Granstrom said. “You asked for assurance and you just got it.”

Kumar said, “Make a resolution, your worship, I think that’s better—before we waste our time.”

Moore offered a resolution that “we’ll have a discussion about the future of the pool,” and council voted unanimously in favour.

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