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Kwantlen University Rethinks No-bid Contract for Design School

Project put to public tender after Partnerships BC awards it to former exec.

By Bob Mackin 24 Aug 2015 | TheTyee.ca

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, a regular contributor to The Tyee, has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

A Partnerships BC plan to steer a $380,000 contract for work on a Kwantlen Polytechnic University project to one of its former executives has been cancelled after questions about the lack of open bidding.

The university now says it will put the contract for "senior strategic advisory services" up for public tender. The contract is for work on the $36-million Chip and Shannon Wilson School of Design at Kwantlen's Richmond campus.

Partnerships BC, on behalf of the university, announced the direct award on Aug. 4 to its former assistant vice-president Rick Steele, who left the government-owned company in January.

The project, announced by Premier Christy Clark in December 2012, was originally scheduled to be finished last month, but construction has yet to start and completion is now scheduled for December 2017.

The university's procurement policies require open bidding for contracts over $50,000 unless there are special circumstances. The New West Partnership Trade Agreement between B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan says that any service contract opportunity worth more than $75,000 must be awarded through an open competition, unless the public body can prove urgent or specialized need.

The notice of intent to award the contract without a competition said R. Steele Consulting Inc. was chosen "because the work is specialized and requires a senior respected service provider with extensive relevant demonstrated experience and knowledge with all services to be provided as well as the availability and flexibility to manage the work. KPU is not aware of other qualified individuals."

The Aug. 4 posting allowed 10 days for objections to the direct award of the 28-month contract. The notice brought at least one objection and questions from The Tyee and the job will now be put to public tender.

Advanced education spokesman Rodney Porter said the university asked the ministry for project management assistance and the ministry turned to Partnerships BC "due to its experience and relationships with project managers on public sector infrastructure projects."

"Partnerships BC in turn recommended R. Steele Consulting as the company highly qualified to do the work required," Porter said.

IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis said it looks like Partnerships BC and the university issued the sole-sourced contract in the middle of summer "in the hopes that nobody would notice."

"If there is only one individual in B.C. that has those credentials, being Rick Steele, we're in serious trouble," Travis said.

Design school behind schedule

A $12-million gift from the Wilsons and Lululemon for the design school is being matched by the province and the university. Marlyn Graziano, the university's director of external and government affairs, said site preparation is complete, but the initial project tender was cancelled in December after bids came in over budget. The university is "working towards" a new tender call.

Steele joined Partnerships BC in December 2005 and was the health care sector lead, providing "oversight and guidance on all Partnerships BC health care projects through business development, procurement and project implementation phases." His work included the Vancouver Island Cancer Centre, BC Centre for Disease Control and the Riverview Hospital land use process. Steele did not respond to interview requests.

Partnerships BC is the government's private-public partnerships "middleman," established in 2002 under premier Gordon Campbell. A request to interview chair Dana Hayden and CEO Amanda Farrell was not fulfilled.

Partnerships BC's ethics policy includes a one-year cooling-off period when ex-employees can't "lobby or otherwise make representations to PBC or its clients." There does not appear to be anything in the ethics policy that prevents Partnerships BC from contracting with a former executive, nor is there any language in the government's core procurement policy to that effect.

Partnerships BC confirmed that Steele left its employ in January 2015. BC Registry Services shows he incorporated R. Steele Consulting in December 2014.

Partnerships BC has faced past controversies about business relationships with a departed executive. The month after CEO Larry Blain stepped down and became chair in October 2010, he incorporated Aardvark Insights. His consulting company was paid $219,900 for services plus $188,836 in board fees. A 2014 internal audit by the Finance Ministry called it a "generally well managed" conflict of interest, because Blain stepped out of meetings where his projects were discussed.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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