This week, the Ontario Court of Appeal released its decision on the Lansdowne legal challenge. As Friends of Lansdowne considers whether to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, we observe that there are few legal protections for citizens concerned with municipal accountability and transparency.
In its ruling, the Ontario Court of Appeal said that it was not illegal for Ottawa City Council to approve a public-private partnership for the re-development of Lansdowne Park even though it technically breached the procurement by-law and presented inaccurate financial information to the public. Basically, the Court said that under current Ontario law, city councils can do almost anything they like when it comes to P3s.
In the wake of the Court`s decision, Mayor Watson has said that he wants to work with Friends of Lansdowne to address some of our concerns. There is certainly much that could be done to improve the Lansdowne deal. Since the final agreement with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG) has yet to be signed, there is still time to ensure better protection for the public good. Here are three ways to increase public accountability and transparency:
- Let's start with financial information. Does anyone know for sure what Lansdowne will cost taxpayers? Friends of Lansdowne estimates that the City’s total capital and interest costs will be about $400 million and likely more when you add in the increased costs of soil remediation and moving the Horticulture Building. Do we know what the real value of the land is now that it has been rezoned from leisure to high-rise, commercial uses?
Before the City signs on the dotted line, it should show citizens in a clear and simple way what the costs are over the life of the project and what returns (if any) are expected on the capital investment and on the land. It would also be good to know what OSEG is putting in and getting out. Let's include all the numbers, including the new CE centre and moving the sports Dome. If the Lansdowne Partnership Plan is as good a financial deal as the City has claimed, it should be willing to present easily-understood financials.
Council also has a responsibility to ask detailed questions about the future financial projections and to set up an audit and evaluation plan. Given that cost estimates from two years ago have proven wrong, how can the City be sure of revenue estimates twenty-five years from now? We are talking about hundreds of millions dollars being spent on Lansdowne, let`s make sure that City Council is accountable.
- It would also be key to ensure that the promised public benefits are actually protected for the long term. The City has said that citizens will enjoy a new stadium, an urban park and public control of the Ottawa Farmers’ Market square, Horticulture and Aberdeen Pavilions. But we've had very little information on how public use will be ensured. We still don't even know what the Horticulture Building and Aberdeen Pavilion will be used for, nor when the park will be created. And how will public access to the stadium and arena be maintained after it is leased to OSEG? If football fails after five years, what happens then? The City has promised that there will be some public benefits from the Lansdowne development, so let's make sure there are legal covenants to protect them.
- Finally, there is the question of governance. In 2010, the City said it was exploring two options: keeping Lansdowne Park in city hands or creating a municipal services corporation. A municipal services corporation is an arrangement like Ontario’s failed ORNGE air ambulance organization, where an arms-length organization takes over a public service. Once such a corporation is created, there is almost no way for citizens, or even Councillors, to have a meaningful say in what goes on.
This is not an appropriate governance structure for a public asset like Lansdowne Park, which has been a public meeting place since the nineteenth century and where millions of dollars will be flowing annually. The City of Ottawa would have to retain full authority to ensure accountability to the citizens.
Friends of Lansdowne knows that many people in Ottawa are tired of hearing about Lansdowne and want to move forward. So do we. But on this legacy project it is incumbent upon us as citizens, and our City Council, to ensure that redevelopment of this invaluable public asset meets a high standard for financial and operational transparency – and that public ownership of the land and infrastructure is maintained.
June Creelman, President of Friends of Lansdowne.