Les Leyne: Eye-rolling Johnson Street Bridge story won't be told

Les Leyne mugshot genericThey conducted deep probes into things like “Managing the Inherent Risks of Limited Human Resources within Small Local Governments” in places such as Tofino and Fernie.

They delivered “Learnings From Capital Procurement Projects” for people in Campbell River and Revelstoke.

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But when it came to a big, fat juicy overrun scandal that cried out for attention, they just never quite got around to it.

The Auditor General for Local Government on Friday suspended what would have been its biggest and potentially most exciting project ever — the audit of the Johnson Street Bridge.

It was due to an unavoidable combination of circumstances. The office itself was targeted by the NDP government for shutdown just weeks after it took on the project, back in February. It was created when Christy Clark was premier and got off to a disastrous start. The first auditor was fired after doing just three reports in two years. A successor carried on but the NDP never warmed up to the idea and set about axing it after they took over in 2017.

It managed to produce about 32 audits over several years and many concluded along the lines of “…meeting expectations.” In other words, no story here.

The pandemic struck at the same time the shutdown decision was announced, which curtailed a lot of their work, including the traditional practice of setting up shop in the target (or perp’s) office and going through all the evidence page by page.

Then they just ran out of time, since the closure takes effect on Dec. 31. “The office will close in 2021 and is unable to complete this audit before that time,” said the statement.

Anyone waiting for a fascinating official public report into how a bridge job ran wildly over budget and years past its construction schedule — and there are more than a few of us — will be disappointed.

That includes Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who asked for an audit of the “disaster” in the first place in 2018. Why the Auditor General for Local ­Government waited for an invitation was never explained.

Helps, who started as a councillor in 2011 and became mayor in 2014, said she understands the circumstances, but the city has already learned its lessons and is applying them to its current major project, the new firehall. (Crystal Pool may be another story.)

Her takeaway from the bridge job? “Do not sign a contract and call it fixed price … when the thing in question is [only] 30 per cent designed … and the contingency budget is four per cent.

“That was the fundamental flaw from the very beginning.”

She said the lesson was learned at city hall and is now being applied. “Hopefully other governments would have learned the same lesson just from watching us.”

Maybe they would. But a concise forensic account of the decade-long struggle to replace the ramshackle old Blue Bridge would have driven the lesson home a lot better. With a few dramatic touches, you could sell the movie rights — think The Big Short merged with The Bridge on the River Kwai — and make a bit of the $100 million cost back.

Anyone looking for more “learnings” was advised by the office to check out previous audits on capital project management in Langley or Mackenzie. Or read a booklet they put out.

It’s not the same.

Another alternative is johnsonstreetbridge.org, started by a group that includes director Ross Crockford. They researched the project from the start, petitioned to force the referendum on it and wrote a detailed synopsis to the Auditor General for Local Government after the audit was announced.

The full story of the bridge includes a couple of years of wrangling after the project got the green light in 2010, during which the province and neighbouring municipalities opted not to contribute.

The project proceeded on remarkably vague terms, ran into major supply problems and opened in the spring of 2018, three years late. The cost went from an early estimate of $40 million to $64 million, $77 million, $92 million to the current $105 million pricetag.

A handful of lawsuits are outstanding, but they’ll probably settle, so there’ll be no official verdicts on how it went so wrong.

It turned out to be a beautiful addition to the harbourscape. The bridge itself is eye-catching. The full story behind it would be eye-rolling.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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