Ottawa's new auditor general will investigate the risks involved with the City of Ottawa's $1 billion plan to convert half its OC Transpo fleet to electric buses before any agreements are even signed.
Nathalie Gougeon's workload for the year, which includes a review of the city's workplace harassment policies and its response to COVID-19, was approved in the spring, but she said this week she wants one more audit added to her plate.
Last month, city council approved entering into agreements with the federal government and the Canada Infrastructure Bank to borrow, and be granted, hundreds of millions of dollars in order to buy 450 new electric buses by 2027.
In a memo to city council, Gougeon said the project "warrants the attention" of her office and she wants to do an early audit of e-buses before staff ask council to sign off on funding deals, likely this fall.
'Another set of eyes on any project of this magnitude is welcome.' - Mayor Jim Watson
She has yet to decide the scope of what she'll review, but pointed to many risks involved by the big, pricey conversion from diesel to electric buses. Those risks were also identified by senior managers at city hall.
For instance, there's little data on how reliable the battery-powered buses will be in Ottawa winters. The battery technology also needs to continue to improve or the city risks having to schedule shorter routes, while some conditions for financing have not yet been met.
Gougeon noted politicians have also delegated powers to city staff to negotiate with the federal government and Hydro Ottawa, which will install and run charging equipment at the St. Laurent garage.
Auditor's 'proactive' audit welcomed
The idea of an auditor reviewing a major city project while it's in the works, instead of afterward when problems arise, drew questions and comments at city council.
Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli tried to understand whether an early-stage audit would prevent Gougeon from later auditing the final project, given she would have contributed advice that might determine what happens.
Gougeon explained her office will not advise city management, which would resemble consulting work and be a conflict of interest. Instead she hopes to offer a tool for political decision-makers.
"In this case, my hope is [the audit] will help inform a decision at the end of the day but similar to ... the integrity commissioner's reports ... we bring forward recommendations and it's up to committee and council to determine how they'd like to utilize those recommendations," she told council Wednesday.
But Stittsville Coun. Glen Gower welcomed Gougeon being "proactive" and getting involved early to advise council of any risks in the big purchase of electric buses.
Mayor Jim Watson explained to reporters he too felt this audit could serve as a pilot project for identifying problems early when it comes to major infrastructure projects.
"Another set of eyes on any project of this magnitude is welcome," he said.