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Arena debate sparks controversy again at city council

Award of site design contract saves taxpayers money, but some unhappy work wasn't put out to a public tenderĀ 
After a lengthy and sometimes heated debate, Sudbury city councillors voted Tuesday to award a site design contract for the new arena/events centre to Cumulus Architects. (File)

After a lengthy and sometimes heated debate, Sudbury city councillors voted Tuesday to award a site design contract for the new arena/events centre to Cumulus Architects.

The contract will see costs of the design shared by the city, Gateway Casinos and developer Dario Zulich at a combined cost of $387,000, or about $130,000 each.

Cumulus already works for the casino, and will be responsible for determining how the events centre, arena and a new hotel on The Kingsway site will be integrated into one location. However, each project will hire its own architects for the actual design of each building.

The decision sparked controversy because, to speed the process, Cumulus was awarded the work without the contract going out to tender. That upset both people who opposed The Kingsway location and some who supported it.

Ward 1 Coun. Mark Signoretti, who fought hard to have the events centre built downtown, said there are architects in town who could have bid on the work.

“This is a $100 million project,” Signoretti said. “Single sourcing for this portion of it is not fair. It's not open an transparent policy … This should go to an RFP process.”

Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann agreed, saying this sort of decision should wait until all of council was present. Mayor Brian Bigger and Ward 9 Coun. Deb McIntosh were absent Tuesday.

“We all know what difference one vote can make,” Landry-Altmann said, a reference to the 6-6 vote in the spring on building the arena downtown. 

Tied votes are considered lost votes under city meeting rules, and The Kingsway site was ultimately selected.

But it was Ward 3 Coun. Gerry Montpellier who stirred the pot, saying he supported The Kingsway, but not awarding the contract without an RFP.

“Definitely unethical,” Montpellier said, adding it would be “a slap in the face” to other local businesses. He later withdrew the “unethical” comment.

But the quip set off Ward 10 Coun. Fern Cormier, who said making such accusations is one thing for the public, but another thing for a city councillor.

“I take great exception to the word unethical being bandied about on this floor,” Cormier said. “It demonstrates, in my view, the sheer volume of misinformation and outright lies that have been circulating in the public.”

While he voted in favour of downtown, now that the decision is made, he said it's time to move ahead. But there are still people determined to put a “stick in the spokes” of the project.

He specifically referenced an email sent to 1,500 people ahead of the meeting,  which he said was full of misinformation and lies.

“The most ludicrous and crazy accusations I have ever seen,” was how Cormier described the email. “Poppycock! … There will be full public hearings. 

“(The email) has led to one of my own colleagues being misled to the point  (he) thinks we're doing something unethical.”

There are rules in place under the city's purchasing bylaw that stipulate when a contract can be awarded without tender, he said.  In this case, Cumulus has extensive experience with site design, and the city is sharing costs with the private sector, rather than having to pay the full amount themselves.

 “Sometimes it's in the best interest of the taxpayer,” he said. 

“Whether you're in favour of the location or not is irrelevant. This is about saving money.”

City CAO Ed Archer said staff was following council's direction to get things done at “business speed, rather than government speed.”

With the casino also hoping to open as early as 2020, Archer said the staff recommendation offers good value for taxpayers, and will see a basic site design ready by October.

“But council will give us direction, and we will follow it,” he said.

Ward 11 Coun. Lynne Reynolds said it wasn't unusual for council to award a contract without a tender if it saves taxpayers money. And issuing an RFP at this point would likely delay major decisions on the project into 2018. 

“And it's very important for the integrated design,” to have a single architect design it, she said.  “This is a really great deal. We'll have something we can look at in October and we'll be well on target in terms of time.”

And Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini said it makes no sense to get mad at staff for following instructions.

“It makes good business sense, from my perspective, and they are following what we asked them to do,” Vagnini said.

In the end, the resolution passed 7-4, with Signoretti, Montpellier, Landry-Altmann and Ward 6 Coun. Rene Lapierre voting against.

Councillors also voted to authorize staff to begin working on adding “arena” as a permitted use on the land, and to proceed with the site design, financing plan and criteria to select the winning bid to building the facility.