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Unelected team to run big sewage project

Aug 08 2012

Greater Victoria's politicians are getting set to turn over control of sewage treatment to a commission of unelected technical experts, who will shepherd the massive project through construction.

The seven-person commission will assume much of the work - from contract-signing to getting shovels in the ground - in making the project a reality by March 31, 2018. The early estimate on cost is $783 million.

Politicians at the Capital Regional District's sewage committee will vote on whether to approve the commission with a new bylaw today, though they appear to have little choice.

Placing control in the hands of a quasi-independent panel of experts was a condition of the province's $248-million share of the sewage-treatment bill, announced last month.

"It was a requirement of the government," said committee chairwoman Denise Blackwell, a Langford councillor. "The committee has said many times we wanted at least some representation on that commission, but the government has out and out said, 'No, you need a committee of people with expertise.' "

Elected politicians will still have broad oversight of the project's budget, procurement methods and "esthetic guidelines for above-ground structures," according to the proposed bylaw. The CRD committee will also get updates every 30 days and annual budget figures, the bylaw says.

Even so, a CRD staff report says, the move will "effectively delegate all responsibility to the commission to deliver the program within the established budget and funding agreements."

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard said the commission is "a condition of the funding, so it doesn't matter if you think it's good or bad."

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, who criticized plans for the main treatment plant at McLoughlin Point, said she wishes the commission had more freedom to replace the CRD's "goofy" plans with something sensible.

"There's a lot of sewage fatigue at the regional district table, and because of that I think we've really failed to capitalize on some of the changes we should be able to make," she said.

The commission model is mandatory for large and complex projects, because it has proven to be effective in delivering projects on time and on budget, the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development said in a statement.

The CRD got the best model possible, where meetings will be open to the public, said Saanich councillor Judy Brownoff.

The province could have forced the CRD to follow a "business model" commission, such as the one it used for Greater Vancouver's Canada Line transit expansion, which operated independent of politicians and behind closed doors, she said.

Greater Victoria's sewage commission could be running by fall.

The CRD is expected to hire an executive search firm to find commissioners with experience in sewage engineering, tendering, construction, finances and communication, the staff report says. None of those commissioners, or companies they represent, can then design or build any part of the treatment system, said Jack Hull, general manager of the CRD's integrated water services.

At today's CRD sewage meeting, politicians are also expected to discuss a plan of action for the next six months, and a report on how the current practice of discharging screened sewage into the ocean fails to comply with new federal regulations.

rshaw@timescolonist.com