One of the things that stands out in my mind regarding the merger of the cities on Montreal island involves former Verdun Mayor, Georges Bosse. After the merger Bosse became a key player on Montreal’s notoriously secretive Executive Committee. Soon after he was the City’s main shill for the massive, and awesomely ill conceived, Devimco project for Griffintown (connecting some dots, anyone?). At one point he actually said that the Devimco project would be great for Verdun businesses on Wellington Street. Now that took quite a stretch of the old imagination to picture a bunch of nouveau condo owners for some strange reason deciding to trek to Verdun to do their important shopping. My point here is that politicians, and developers, will say just about anything, make the wildest speculations possible, in order to make their projects more attractive, and people will buy it simply because it promises positive economic development.
And so it was with the merger, an entity that was supposed to solve a lot of economic issues for all the former Montreal Urban Communities. But there was a choice as to who would lead the city after the merger between Pierre Bourque and Gerald Tremblay. I was at a debate on the West Island and watched Bourque and Tremblay debate before a very hostile audience. Bourque, who was terrible in English, did not connect with what was bugging people at all as he promised great things for the merger. Tremblay, who was definitely not a separatist (nudge nudge wink wink), made promises about fighting the merger and that seemed to provide some bitter satisfaction for the audience, there was a faint light at the end of the merger tunnel. Montreal was going to be a great city again, that was the bottom line.
The merger was wrong, a universally acknowledged failed project, and so was voting for Gerald Tremblay. For some of us corruption at Montreal City Hall was painfully obvious. But the voters who put Gerald Tremblay in three times need to rethink why they supported him, why they decided to continue to support such an incompetent and corrupt administration, and why they feared any and all alternatives.
Henry Aubin: Corruption rise mirrors city’s growth
MONTREAL — Gérald Tremblay is gone as mayor, but a major reason for the upsurge in corruption remains intact and unchallenged: the merger.
One of the significant things to come out in testimony before the Charbonneau inquiry is the linkage between the growth of corruption and the creation of the megacity.
The chronology that three witnesses — Lino Zambito, Gilles Surprenant and Luc Leclerc — have given for illicit activities sheds light on how corruption and collusion existed at a relatively low level in Montreal during the 1990s, then boomed in the years following the enactment in 2000 of the law for the merger of all municipalities on Montreal Island.
Almost no one in the political class talks about this correlation. The merger is still a sacred cow for most provincial and municipal politicians of all parties. The merger enjoys immunity from criticism, too, by most media commentators. Yet the merger is the elephant in the corruption room.
*City engineer Leclerc, for one, said that in the 1990s he and other colleagues received from contractors gifts of wine, tickets to hockey games and, in his case, free trips to the Caribbean. But it would have been in the 2000s that the biggest cash bribes rolled in. In all, he says he pocketed more than $500,000.
*Fellow engineer Surprenant testified that the overwhelming majority of the more than $700,000 he collected in contractors’ bribes came in the 2000s. The loot peaked at $184,500 in 2004.
*Contractor Zambito stated that starting in 2005 or 2006, he gave three per cent of his city contracts to an intermediary who said he would pass them as kickbacks on to Union Montreal, Tremblay’s party.
To be sure, the evidence that these insiders have provided is more anecdotal than ironclad: More witnesses will be needed to explain how corruption and collusion evolved over the years before we can get the full picture. Nonetheless, what has emerged so far corresponds remarkably closely (though more dramatically) to what had been predicted.
You didn’t need a crystal ball to know it was coming. In August 2001, three months before the megacity’s first election, an unprecedented Niagara of donations from business people poured into the two major parties’ coffers. I warned then that both parties “appear poised to bring Montreal Island politics into a new era of intensified beholdenness to special interests.” In 2002, I wrote that Montrealers “might be entering a new era of bribe-friendly local government.” In 2004, I explained how Montreal was becoming “more susceptible” to corruption. In all, I must have written eight or 10 such columns in the early or mid 2000s, well before the rash of scandals broke out.
I don’t rehash all this to gloat (well, maybe a little). Mainly, I rehash it to show how the underlying conditions for corruption were apparent from the very start. The political establishment — infatuated with the merger — paid no attention to such warnings back then, and I don’t mind rubbing its nose in its heedlessness. It’s time for it to pay attention now because the conditions are still around.
Here’s how the corruption boom and the creation of the megacity are entwined:
The merger made Montreal’s budget irresistibly juicy to construction contractors, lawyers and consultants. The city’s budget grew 77 per cent in 2002, the megacity’s Year One.
No longer were the political decision-makers deciding on how to spend these billions divided into more than two dozen city councils; no longer were the civil servants advising them scattered accordingly. Now things were conveniently centralized. (The demerger and borough empowerment that took effect in 2005 decentralized some decision-making, which helps explain why so many contractors opposed those actions, but Montreal city hall today still decides all the island’s major contracts.)
This centralization of power makes it easier for business interests to manipulate decision-makers legally (through political financing and lobbying) and illegally (through graft.)
Making it still easier are two things. One is the party system. It means business interests don’t have to influence many people: Instead of having to separately approach many independent city councillors (who might vote their consciences), they need only approach the party with the majority of seats: It will impose bloc voting on its members. What joy: One-stop currying of favour.
A second thing to make manipulation easier is the existence of the megacity’s supersized, 64-member city council. For practical reasons, decision-making is concentrated in an executive committee consisting of a dozen or so party loyalists. They meet behind closed doors and usurp decisional power from where it ought to be — the city council. Further joy: Almost nothing important, including most contracts, gets real public debate.
The Marois government has so far dealt with the spate of scandals by personalizing them around the mayor and by proposing new legal ways to cleanse the tendering system. Fine. But a serious approach requires dealing with the conditions that make corruption so easy — the party system, systemic secrecy, the lack of checks and balances and the unmanageable hugeness of a single unit of municipal government.