Another conflict surfaces in Renfrew over contract

Renfrew –Controversy has arisen at Renfrew council again, but this time it is about a sole-sourced contract which came to light during a presentation about the overbudget town hall renovation project where costs ballooned from $200,000 to $2 million.

“I am going to do my best and try not to lose it here, but this is like Ma-te-Way 2.0 Junior” Councillor Andrew Dick said last Tuesday at the council meeting. “I understand that it was lame duck but the optics of us spending $400,000 on a former councillor…who served here…unacceptable! Uncool! It's just so wrong on so many levels and the optics is horrible.”

The contract was awarded to a company owned by former Councillor Arlene Jamieson and during the meeting the exact dollar amount of the contract was never ascertained, however numbers ranged between $70,000 and over $400,000.

During last week’s council meeting, Renfrew’s Chief Administrative Officer Robert Tremblay presented the Town Hall Renovation Project Close Out Report, an information item containing a list of “lessons learned” on a project that began in 2018 with a budget of $200,000 and a projected end date of 2021.

His report showed the project was over two years late with a budget that grew ten-fold to $2 million. It appeared council inherited a second capital project, plagued with problems similar to the town’s Ma-te-Way project.

However, the ten-fold budget increase did not generate much of the level of outrage associated with the Ma-te-Way expansion. Instead, the outrage of council was on display when informed a contract issued in 2022 was issued to a business owned by a member of that council. The report showed it was a sole-source contract. The bombshell revelation was revealed after Mr. Tremblay completed his presentation on the recent renovation and was answering questions from council members.

It was at that point he informed council a former member of council (2018-2022) is the principal owner of a local business that was awarded a sole-source contract from the town for a portion of the renovation project. The contract was awarded less than two months prior to the October 2022 municipal election. It was common knowledge the former councillor did not file nomination papers by the August 19 deadline to qualify as a candidate on the 2022 ballot.

However, just how much money was paid in the sole-source contract was not definitively stated during the meeting. Council members, and the public, were only left with speculation and a concern the amount could be as high as $400,000.

Mr. Tremblay’s report highlighted the major expenses within the multi-year budget as:

Council Chambers: $63,018.06; Furniture & Furnishings: $401,217.01; Architect & Project Management; $131,636.72; Minor Construction: $44,126.20, and Major Construction: $1,372,891.37.

The report did not identify the individual contracts awarded within each category and one contract that caught the eye of Councillor Clint McWhirter was listed under “Furniture and Furnishings.” It was issued when council was designated a “lame duck” council.

Mr. Tremblay explained 2022 was an election year and under the Municipal Act, lame duck status is triggered when less than three-quarters of an outgoing council can be re-elected, and Renfrew met the criteria. The “lame duck” designation ran from August 19, 2022, through November 15, 2022, the day the new council was sworn in.

Under Section 275 of the Municipal Act, there are four restrictions imposed on the “lame duck” council: They cannot appoint or remove any officer of the municipality, hire or dismiss any member of town staff, dispose of any town property exceeding $50,000, or make any expenditures and/or incur liability exceeding $50,000, and council is not permitted to make major financial decisions. That power is transferred to the CAO.

Councillors Grill CAO

Coun. McWhirter inquired as to the principal owner of a numbered company awarded a contract for services as part of the renovation of town hall.

“Well, since you brought it up…furniture and furnishings are $401,000,” he stated. “So, I have a couple of questions. Who is the contractor (it was) awarded to? As, the name of the company. Were three quotes gotten? The procurement process…was it followed? Did staff have any input and was there an actual list of ‘this is what we need’ and sent out for pricing?”

Mr. Tremblay responded to the questions with a brief explanation.

“So, the contract for furnishings was given to 14452101 Canada Inc.,” he replied. “It was single sourced contract which is permitted under the purchasing by-law.”

The authority was done by the CAO in a lame duck period, he said.

He went on to clarify that “basically, for a four-month period there is no council…but the previous council approved the project.”

He added in September 2022 the previous council was informed of major contracts awarded to businesses involved with the town hall renovations.

He said the rationale behind awarding a contract to the company known as Venture Interiors was based on sole-sourced criteria including the facts: it is a local business; the business had completed other large-scale office renovations similar to what Renfrew’s town hall presented; among the recent contracts awarded to the contract recipient were the council chambers at the County of Renfrew Administration Building in Pembroke and work at Garrison Petawawa.

He said one condition listed in the contract included the installation of furniture required for council chambers to be ready for upcoming council meetings. The new chairs, desks and other furnishings would meet the requirements of modern technology and be available for council members and delegations.

He said the additional work of wiring the room for internet connectivity along with painting, flooring and electrical work was not included in the “Furniture and Furnishings” expenses category, but he informed council of the amount paid for work completed within council chambers.

“Council chambers that were undertaken in 2022 were a cost of $71,000,” he said.

He noted the $71,000 paid to Venture Interiors did not include any monies for furnishings related to the 36 workstations/cubicles for staff and tenants or the four meeting rooms. He informed council that ergonomics were addressed to support productivity, health, and safety and was reflected in the contract.

He concluded his answer by summarizing the actions taken to award the sole-sourced contract.

“The cost was done under delegated authority and it was single sourced as permitted under the purchasing policy,” he said.

Councillors Question Contract

Coun. McWhirter followed up his initial question with a question that set the tone for the rest of the meeting.

“The limited company I was told was a former council member…am I wrong or is that true?” he asked Mr. Tremblay.

“So, the 14452101 Canada Inc. is Venture Interiors out of Pembroke and yes, the principal is Arlene Jamieson,” he told council. “Now in fairness to Coun. Jamieson, she didn’t influence me in any kind of way. Because we were looking at the council chamber principally and the timing associated with it. We looked and I approached the county to determine who had provided their space and Coun. Jamieson did report and did declare interest when the matter was declared at council.”

He added staff were provided regular updates during this process regarding future office layout and configuration. He said some staff were not overly happy about the new layout, but Mr. Tremblay said there was a lot of emphasis on ergonomics to help promote health and safety in the workplace.

Coun. Dick was visibly upset when informed of Coun. Jamieson’s successful awarding of a major contract and he pre-warned his fellow councillors he was beyond frustrated and angry with the revelation.

“I…I am so…just so upset that this actually happened,” he said as his voice rose. “I know you said there are no influences and I get that, but the optics on this are absolutely horrible. If we weren’t here to question this and if this were four or eight years ago, I am sure this would just slide under the table.

“We are really, really trying hard to be transparent and accountable, but when this comes up at a council meeting, this is just unacceptable,” Coun. Dick added. “This is horrible and I don’t even know what to say and I think I will just leave it at that. If I go on any further, it is going to get real bad and I will just let my other councillors deal with this.”

At this point, Reeve Peter Emon raised the issue of language to Coun. Dick.

“I would encourage my friend to remove his comment about sliding under the table,” he told Coun. Dick.

The councillor did not retract his statements at that point or during the meeting.

The reeve, who served as reeve for the previous three terms of council, took offence to Coun. Dick’s inference that he and his former colleagues would purposely ignore a questionable contract.

As a result, Reeve Emon informed council he intended to bring a Notice of Motion to the April 23 meeting.

The motion reads, “That council considers and approves sanctions for a current member of council whose actions have or will impact negatively the image of the town of Renfrew.”

How Much Was Awarded

Councillor John McDonald continued questioning Mr. Tremblay about the amount Coun. Jamieson’s firm received. He noted two categories identified by Mr. Tremblay in terms of major expenses included “Council Chambers” with final expenses listed at $63,000 and “Furniture and Furnishings” with final expenses recorded at $401,000.

“Of those two categories, how much did Venture Interiors get?” he asked

Mr. Tremblay replied that in terms of furniture for council chambers, Venture Interiors received $70,846. He explained upon review, he should have added the furnishings provided by Venture Interiors to council chambers into the “Furniture and Furnishings” category. He listed McPhail and Perkins, a Renfrew furniture store that closed last year, received $3,182 for furnishings. He said a payment was made to Montel Smart Space of $22,491.

Not satisfied with Mr. Tremblay’s answer, Coun. McDonald followed up his initial question with one based on specifics.

“Just to be very specific…how much did Venture Interiors get out of all of it? What was the total they received?”

“I don’t have the full amounts but I can prepare that for you from the $401,” he said and illustrated a way to determine the amount by holding up a pad and begin subtracting other contract totals from the $401,000 total.

“But I would subtract roughly $25,000 from that and the other one is due to delays and we were procuring them and there are some storage-related costs associated with the furniture,” he said.

Mr. Tremblay again returned to the issue of the 36 workstations/cubicles that were billed but did not have the amounts of each item available for council.

No other questions related to the amount of money awarded to Venture Interiors were received and following a couple of questions related to Mr. Tremblay’s town hall renovation report, the report was received as information only and council voted to move on to the next topic on the agenda.

Editor’s note: The Leader attempted to contact Ms. Jamieson by telephone and left a message with a voicemail indicating the number reached belonged to Venture Interiors and a detailed message was left requesting Ms. Jamieson to contact this reporter for a comment and/or clarification that as principal owner of Venture Interiors she received a sole-sourced contract in the amount of $401,000.

The Leader also sent an email to Renfrew CAO Robert Tremblay and Acting Treasurer Charlene Jackson to accurately report the amount awarded to Venture Interiors for work provided to Renfrew town hall.

This reporter spoke to Ms. Jackson who said she had just returned from a holiday and was not aware of the details of the awards issued for town hall. She said CAO Tremblay was offsite Monday and Tuesday this week and expected back in the office on Wednesday morning.

The Leader has published the amount of $401,000 as that was the common number referred to by both Coun. Dick and CAO Tremblay and there were no objections raised by either the elected members or staff present at the April 9, 2024, regular council meeting.

Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader