Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin says he won’t resign if the Johnson Street Bridge replacement project comes in over its $92.8-million budget.
Asked by mayoral candidates Ida Chong and Stephen Andrew at a Fairfield/Gonzales candidates debate if he would quit if the project went over budget, Fortin avoided answering the question.
But in an interview, Fortin said he would not resign.
“If the courts or council make a decision to give more money to the bridge-builders, I will abide by that decision, but I am adamant that a contract is a contract and I have an expectation that they will fulfill their obligations,” Fortin said.
With less than two weeks before election day on Nov. 15, the bridge is beginning to dominate discussions at candidates forums and on the doorstep.
“I think the bridge is symbolic of everything that’s wrong at city hall,” said first-term councillor and mayoral hopeful Lisa Helps.
“We make decisions in a vacuum. We historically haven’t shared information. We don’t manage projects well. The bridge is a symbol and it’s a symbol of poor leadership.”
Helps, one of two councillors to vote against the bridge contract, said Victoria is once again going into an election not knowing how much the bridge is going to cost.
The bridge is beginning to dog Fortin’s every step.
The mayor was even booed at an all-candidates meeting in James Bay earlier in the campaign when he suggested residents were getting the bridge they wanted.
Given that the city is in mediation with both its contractor and its prime consultant over their demands for more money, the longer Fortin holds to the idea that the bridge price is “fixed” and says taxpayers won’t be on the hook for more, the more skeptical voters may become, said political scientist and UVic professor emeritus Norman Ruff.
“Up to now, Fortin has been quite steadfast that all is well, but more and more, there’s suspicion that maybe there’s a lack of integrity around the whole project,” Ruff said.
Chong has tried to claim the “blue bridge boondoggle” as her issue, even releasing an independent engineering analysis last week showing the project, which jumped in cost from $77 million before the 2011 election to $92.8 million after the vote, is now on track to cost between $104 million and $110 million.
But Chong carries baggage of her own on the bridge file.
Fortin never misses an opportunity in all-candidates forums to counter Chong’s attacks by pointing out that the province never contributed a penny to the bridge project, even though Chong was the local provincial minister sitting at the cabinet table at the time.
Andrew, who says it was his frustration over the handling of the bridge project that prompted his entry into the race, said there’s no question the bridge project is the No. 1 issue on the doorstep.
“None of these guys have any moral authority to deal with the bridge,” said Andrew, adding that Fortin is avoiding answers, Helps was at the council table for three years but didn’t seem to realize there was a problem until engineer Jonathan Huggett tabled his damning report on the project and Chong “didn’t bring a nickel to the table when she was in office.”
Fortin, meanwhile, said he’s fighting to make sure “we get the highest-quality bridge at the lowest cost to the taxpayer.”