09/27/2016 10:57 EDT | Updated 09/27/2016 10:58 EDT

Why's The Private Sector Playing Taxpayers' Foreman In B.C.?

massey tunnel bridge replacement

Massey Tunnel bridge replacement project. (Photo BC GOV/FLICKR)

In 2009 -- with the B.C. election fast approaching -- the B.C. government went on a full-court press to get the Port Mann/Highway 1 improvement project deal signed and past the point of no return.

Now, with the 2017 election on the horizon, history is repeating itself, but this time with two megaprojects: Site C and the Massey Tunnel replacement project.

Yet, one aspect to these multibillion-dollar projects remains shrouded in mystery for most British Columbians: who's in charge?

Who calls the shots on virtually every decision -- from design changes to cost overruns -- once the shovel hits the ground? The taxpayers' foreman, if you will.

Is it the minister responsible? A deputy or assistant deputy minister?

Not necessarily.

On major projects, more often than not, the government assigns the job to someone in the private sector.

How did B.C. end up in the peculiar situation of having to rely on the private sector to oversee private sector construction companies working on public sector infrastructure projects, potentially signing off on billions of tax dollars in cost overruns along the way?

site c

Rendering of B.C.'s Site C project. (Photo: YouTube)

Public Safety Canada's 2012 report, "Economic Sectors Vulnerable to Organized Crime: Commercial Construction," offers a clue (page 29).

"In 2001, public agencies in B.C. assumed responsibility for their own procurement.

Our sources in B.C. indicate that government officials responsible for procurement lack the requisite expertise in relation to commercial construction projects.

Many of those who formerly had the expertise have retired or moved on to the private sector."

The taxpayers' foreman on the Port Mann project was Gary Webster, a senior vice-president at CH2M Hill until the summer of 2009, when he became a partner at accounting firm KPMG.

His responsibilities -- spelled out in the Kiewit & Sons/Flatiron General Partnership contract with TIC -- included: "negotiate and make all consequential decisions on behalf of the Authority, audit and monitor the Constructor's Quality Management System, perform all such functions as may be ascribed and perform such other functions in respect of this Agreement or any other."

Lest there be any doubt as to his authority: "The Constructor and the Design Build Contractor are entitled to treat any act of the Authority's Representative which is authorized by this Agreement or any other Authority Project Document as being expressly authorized by the Authority, and shall not be required to determine whether any express authority has in fact been given."

According to Webster's resumé (page 333) -- found in a 2014 Mackenzie County, Alberta council document -- he was also the province's representative on the Sea-to-Sky highway project and the procurement director for the entire Gateway program.

His responsibilities included: "guiding the identification, approval, risk review, development, implementation of the procurement process, and contract negotiations" for the Port Mann, the North and South Fraser Perimeter Roads and the Pitt River Bridge.

One word not found in his resumé? Overrun, as in cost.

massey tunnel

The Massey Tunnel in Richmond, British Columbia. (Photo: Gettystock)

Webster is familiar with the subject.

Sometimes a letter isn't always as important for who signed it, or who it was addressed to, as it is for who was carbon-copied in it.

Such is the case with a letter dated Oct. 9, 2007, from Garry Dawson, Project Director, Port Mann/Highway 1 project to Environment Canada.

Webster was carbon-copied, which means he was very much on the job when the government publicly recommitted to its $3-billion Gateway estimate -- including a $300-million contingency fund -- only four days before.

The latest Gateway price tag totals $4.77 billion, nearly 63 per cent over the government's first estimate.

The Port Mann alone was $3.3 billion, more than double its original estimate, enough to pay for two Coquihalla Highways in 2016 dollars.

How times change.

After assuming office in 1986, then-premier Bill Vander Zalm called a public inquiry to investigate cost overruns on the Coquihalla.

Commissioner Douglas MacKay found "the financial reporting of the project to be tainted with an atmosphere of deceit and prevarication by both politicians and public servants. The legislature was avoided, the legislature was misled by the documents presented to it, the true costs were not reported in a forthright manner."

Findings that could easily apply to the fears of many over the selective information the government shares with the public today on both the Site C and Massey projects.

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