Spending watchdog could act as ‘safety net’ for public service, Toronto councillors say

Some Toronto city councillors are hoping a new watchdog that oversees city contracts could prevent waste and financial scandals. 

They’re asking city staff to investigate creating an independent inspector general’s office that could review city purchasing and act as “safety net” on the work of staffers as they hand out contracts worth millions and billions of dollars for city services.

.Coun. Gord Perks made the request Friday. It was endorsed by the majority of councillors on the general government committee at city hall. 

“A dollar invested today, and making sure you don’t make mistakes, is worth $100 two years from now when you find out that you did and your government’s mired in scandal,” Perks said.

City staff will now study the model and lay out possible recommendations. If the committee wants to move forward and create the position, it will need the approval of city council.

“Our public service, we put a lot of demands on them, they have to move fast on a lot of things,” said Perks, who represents Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park. “And it’s good to have a set of eyes who aren’t under that pressure to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this one might have been a bit sloppy”‘

Past contract problems spur request

Perks said he and fellow Coun. Paula Fletcher began to study other global models for the role last term after they had concerns about some city contracts.

He also pointed to controversial deals for winter maintenance and road resurfacing ,which have been criticized in the past as examples of work that could be reviewed by a potential watchdog.

Perks also said the MFP computer leasing scandal, which rocked city hall in the late 1990s, is evidence that Toronto has seen its own share of procurement troubles.

That controversy over alleged bribes and conflict of interest at the heart of a computer leasing contract led to a multi-year public inquiry. It resulted in a series of recommendations  including tighter rules around lobbyists and the establishment of a city integrity commissioner.

Montreal has its own inspector general who plays a similar role in that city, Perks said.

The watchdog would cover issues not currently under the purview of the city’s fairness monitors and auditor general, he added.

“The auditor general doesn’t look at contracts before they go out the door, the auditor general is brought in on the back end if something has already gone wrong,” he said.

“And the fairness monitor is simply there to make sure that no lobbying takes place during a contract being let.”

Coun. Alejandra Bravo supported the request because she thinks the watchdog could help the city save money during a time when budgets are tight.

“We’re signing all kinds of contracts,” she said. “As we’re selling assets, as we’re contracting out services, is there value for money? Are they well-structured? And are they returning the services that we expect? Those are really important questions to ask.”

Position would create ‘duplication,’ councillor warns

But the chair of the general government committee, Coun.James Pasternak, said the proposal sounded like it would increase the size of city government and add a layer of duplication.

“In my speaking to thousands of people across across North York during the [2022 municipal] election, it is my feeling that people do not want smaller government, they do not want bigger government …  they want better government,” he said.

Coun. James Pasternak says he’s worried the creation of an inspector general position would add another costly layer of complexity to city governance. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Coun. Stephen Holyday supported the request to investigate creating the watchdog, but said he isn’t sure if there’s a problem to solve. A city report will answer that, he said.

“Getting a report for information is one thing but at this juncture. It is still unclear what problem an inspector general may solve,” he said.

Holyday, who is the city’s audit committee chair, said there is always room for improvement in the way the city does business, but it needs to be careful not to about extra layers of needless complexity to its operations.

“I am cautious about growing the breadth and depth of government that adds cost to the taxpayers,” he said.

“But there is value in thinking about these things.”

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