Councillors ‘shocked’ over cost of Patrick Brown’s failed Brampton University scheme
Consultants with direct ties to Mayor Patrick Brown and Councillor Rowena Santos began working on a Brampton University plan long before a competitive tendering process was launched and long before other members of council even knew about the scheme or approved funding for it, according to angry councillors who obtained internal City documents also shared with The Pointer.
The documents shed light on tax-funded payments to two consultants closely tied to Brown and Santos. They show work on BramptonU started long before council was informed of the plan and the two firms began their engagement months before the bidding process for the work was even launched. Their names were first presented to council by staff who recommended them for the job long after they had already been working with Brown and Santos behind the scenes.
The amount eventually paid under the supervision of former CAO David Barrick, who was recruited by Brown and fired on February 11 (according to new information received by The Pointer), was at least more than twice what was approved by council. It’s unclear how this was allowed.
During Wednesday’s heated council meeting, members repeatedly voiced their anger over the new information they obtained. Interim CAO Paul Morrison vowed to get to the bottom of what took place under Barrick’s watch.
Some of Brown’s allies, primarily Councillor Michael Palleschi, got into yelling matches with some of the six members who pledged in a stunning letter three weeks ago to clean up City Hall, stating “local democracy is under siege” in Brampton.
Councillors demanded a full report from staff and explanations for unusual spending patterns for the university consulting work. They put a freeze on the BramptonU project, with several stating it was already dead.
One of the consultants hired to do work on the BramptonU project had close connections to Councillor Rowena Santos.
(Image from The Pointer files)
After consultants were hired in November of 2019 to put together a detailed, cohesive strategy to build the new campus and create the city’s first standalone university, Brown, Santos and Harkirat Singh were the public faces of the BramptonU project throughout much of 2020, appearing in City-produced videos heralding the plan, flooding social media and creating confusion by indicating it was a done deal.
The Pointer reported at the time that the provincial government had been provided with few details for a process that can take decades, did not allocate any funding for the plan and issued no required approvals to move the idea forward.
Despite this, the new documents show Brown and Santos were operating behind the scene, working with outside parties long before all council members were informed that consultants would be engaged.
Brown has links to one of the consultants, Stakeholder Research Associates (SRA), through employee Rob Godfrey (the son of Postmedia Chair Paul Godfrey), who worked closely with Brown when he was a member of the former PC leader’s inner circle, as detailed by the mayor in his own book which chronicles his dramatic fall from the Party in 2018, while Rob Godfrey was one of his most trusted confidantes.
It remains unclear what specifically SRA did for the more than half-million dollars it was eventually paid by Brampton taxpayers. Government relations, seemingly to lobby officials to advocate for the plan, and public engagement were among the activities outlined in a July 2019 draft report. But at least $100,000 was invoiced for “property development” without any clear description of what this work entailed.
Mayor Patrick Brown (centre) along with Councillors Rowena Santos and Harkirat Singh were the public faces of the BramptonU project.
(Image from City of Brampton)
Councillors on Wednesday said they did not know a draft report was submitted by the consultants months before they were officially hired through council approval and the only communication they were aware of to any higher level of government was a brief letter through council sent to Queen’s Park mentioning the desire for a new university and the hope for provincial support.
SRA did not respond to questions, stating they should be directed to the City of Brampton.
A summary from Brampton City staff in December showed that SRA had received $505,399 for its work on the BramptonU project between 2019 and 2021. Documents obtained by The Pointer show the initial contract, awarded in November 2019, was valued at $170,000 (as part of the $300,000 approved by council, along with the amount paid to the other consultant). However, the financial documents, which include invoices and payment records, show the amount eventually paid to SRA was far more than the original contract value. Two separate increases led to later payments that increased the cost for SRA’s work to a total of $531,100, according to the City of Brampton financial statements included in the documents.
They also show that the original amount was charged to Barrick’s office, but the later payments were charged to two different City departments. The account used to pay SRA was also changed to another account.
Santos is linked to the other firm that worked on BramptonU, the Academy for Sustainable Innovation (ASI). It was co-founded by David Wheeler, who in a blog post had written about the idea of a new university in Brampton. Wheeler taught Santos as a post-secondary business instructor and told The Pointer in December he had been her “occasional mentor” in the years since. Santos also helped Wheeler when he sought political office in Nova Scotia in 2017, flying to Halifax to help with his campaign. ASI was paid $101,381 for its work on the project, which was undertaken, at least in part, by Wheeler.
Neither Brown nor Santos responded to questions from The Pointer.
Rowena Santos (right) at a campaign event in 2017 for David Wheeler (third from left).
(Image from Facebook/David Wheeler)
On November 25, 2019, Brown, Santos and Singh all appeared in a video promoting the concept of a new university in Brampton — they called it BramptonU. “We don’t have a full university of our own in Brampton,” Santos said.
Brown explained the plan. “We’re proposing a new, innovative solution: BramptonU, a City-led effort with the goal to get provincial approval to launch our own, fully accredited university,” he said.
The video was released the same day the rest of council took part in a workshop run by Wheeler explaining how BramptonU might work. It came exactly one week after ASI and SRA won contracts to develop a university plan for Brampton and lobby for its creation.
But the real work on BramptonU began around eight months earlier, long before tender documents were drawn up and promotional videos filmed.
Work on BramptonU began months before contracts were awarded
An email sent by Santos to several people, including former CAO Joe Pittari and Brown’s chief of staff, Babu Nagalingam, explained that, on March 14, 2019, David Wheeler planned to fly from Halifax to Brampton. The email, seen by The Pointer, explains he was going to be in the city to elaborate on a blog post pitching a plan to bring a new university to Brampton. “I had been reminding folks about this for a few weeks now,” Santos wrote.
The Pointer cannot confirm if this meeting took place but a few months later, on July 8, 2019, an 82-page document was submitted to the CAO. Councillors have told The Pointer they were never informed of the draft report, which was produced by the two consultants months before the bidding process for the job closed.
"Councillor Medeiros and I met with Mr Wheeler on July 3rd, 2019 to discuss the idea of BramptonU,” Councillor Jeff Bowman told The Pointer Thursday. “I do not remember being shown the 82-page draft that was submitted to the CAO's office only a day later. This was the first and only meeting I had with Mr. Wheeler.”
Bowman said he is also concerned after learning about the connections between the firms and Santos and Brown. “At no time when we were considering the proposal from ASI/Stakeholder Research was there any declaration from any councillor or the Mayor that they knew or had any association with the proponents. We were informed at council yesterday that a councillor had checked with and received clearance from any pecuniary interest by the IC (integrity commissioner) in August 2019, well after the agreement was already in place.”
He also said the eventual cost for the consulting came as a big surprise. “I found the totals of the invoices presented yesterday for BramptonU shocking."
The document Bowman never saw is titled “A draft strategy for the Development and Establishment of Brampton University” and has two company logos on the front: Stakeholder Research Associates and the Academy for Sustainable Innovation. The document references Wheeler, including meetings he had with City officials and certain councillors long before others were informed of their communication.
Wheeler is no longer listed as an employee of ASI and there is no mention of him on the website. The company does not have anything to do with launching universities and is involved in helping businesses reduce their carbon footprint. It did not respond to questions about Wheeler and his work for Brampton under the ASI banner.
“I would refer you back to the Council and the staff who placed and then managed the ASI and SRA contracts and the reporting and other accountabilities associated with them,” Wheeler told The Pointer. “I was simply a sub-contractor on these contracts until the Council asked for the work to stop around February 2020.”
In response to follow-up questions, including whether he had been paid for work prior to November 18, 2019, when contracts were awarded, Wheeler repeated his stance. “You really will have to take these contractual issues up with the Council,” he said. “It’s their project.”
The methodology section of the draft development strategy lays out work that took place in the spring of 2019 ahead of the BramptonU launch. It is unclear if ASI (and Wheeler) were under contract with the City of Brampton at the time; council did not approve requests for proposals (bids) for the project work until September, 2019.
“A proposal was submitted to the Office of the CAO by Stakeholder Research Associates in late April 2019,” the methodology portion of the document explains. “Following acceptance of the proposal, Dr Wheeler consulted with senior members of the administration of the City Council and their direct reports and did two tours of the City in the week of May 13th (2019).”
It is unclear who “senior” members of City Council might be. Brown is the head of council, but other members do not hold senior or junior titles.
ASI did not respond to a detailed list of questions, including when they first signed a contract to work on BramptonU.
Questions were also sent to SRA where Godfrey works. “SRA was a vendor of the City of Brampton,” Katharine Partridge, the president and managing partner of Stakeholder Research Associates Canada, told The Pointer.
Council agendas, statements from City staff and documents obtained by The Pointer suggest ASI and SRA were first awarded contracts to work on BramptonU on November 18, 2019. Neither company confirmed when they were first engaged.
A Brampton staff report, received by councillors on September 25, 2019, made two recommendations. It asked to “commence a public competitive procurement process” to retain an organization to “undertake advocacy efforts in order to obtain confirmation of support for the establishment of a University in the City of Brampton and to coordinate various public engagement opportunities”. It also sought permission to solicit bids from companies to “work on potential University program offerings that reflect the types of identified and required skills in the future economy and current high-demand skills that employers are seeking, by hiring, a qualified organization, and to make recommendations to Council regarding these matters in the future”.
Ann Bremner, manager of corporate projects, explained to councillors Wednesday that the two requests were labelled request for proposals (RFP) 2019-079 and 2019-080. The procurement process closed on both bids on October 16, 2019 and purchase orders for the work were issued on November 18, 2019, she said. The contracts were awarded to SRA and ASI.
“We didn’t get much of a turnaround to engage in a competitive process,” Councillor Charmaine Williams observed Wednesday. “It’s almost like we knew who we were going with, who we were going to award these contracts to.”
The draft strategy document submitted by ASI and SRA before the November 2019 contracts were awarded resurfaced a year later.
On July 24, 2020, Brampton issued a media release celebrating consultants and staff for laying “the groundwork for future BramptonU”. It referred to three chapters of BramptonU’s green paper as a “preview” of the proposal for a full university. The extracts are taken almost word-for-word, with some minor edits, from the proposal completed in July, 2019, by ASI and SRA.
“Over the past year, the City has worked closely with stakeholders and internationally-renowned educational institutions like Ryerson University, University of Guelph-Humber, The London School of Economics and Political Science, Queen Mary University of London, D2L and Algoma University, to help inform a plan for its own university, BramptonU, and a new agile and innovative model being proposed for postsecondary education in Brampton,” the media release claimed.
The work that was published as a preview in July 2020 had been completed more than 12 months earlier.
The September 25, 2019, staff report that planned to begin searching for contractors laid out the budget for the BramptonU project. It proposed $300,000 could be used in approved funding from the Office of the CAO. “Funding and financing requirements for the implementation of a Brampton University will need to be determined through development of a complete business case for Council’s consideration,” the report says.
Purchase orders, invoices and emails obtained by The Pointer show the cost of the project increased dramatically. City staff now peg the total at over $600,000, with the lion’s share of funding awarded to SRA. The decisions appear to have been made by staff without the knowledge or approval of many council members.
Bremner told council Wednesday the total cost could be as high as $1.4 million. It is unclear if that figure includes work on a since-cancelled plan to build a Ryerson University campus.
“I don’t know where to start here, I really don’t,” Councillor Pat Fortini said Wednesday, referring to a collection of receipts he said were left anonymously for him in his neighbour’s mailbox.
Fortini was one of the six councillors that signed an open letter in February blasting mismanagement at the top of City Hall. It alleged, “Some local elected members of Council and certain senior staff hired during the current term have taken a blowtorch to the rules that are supposed to govern our city.”
The six councillors who signed the letter vowed to clean up City Hall and investigate allegations of improper procurements and hiring. Just two days after councillors published the letter, controversial former CAO David Barrick was fired and replaced by the City’s director of bylaw, Paul Morrison.
During Wednesday's council meeting, Councillor Pat Fortini demanded answers to questions about the money spent on BramptonU
(Image from The Pointer files)
Now, councillors are demanding Morrison search through old documents and contracts to explain exactly how the BramptonU file was managed under Barrick, who was brought to City Hall by the mayor.
Councillor Martin Medeiros voiced grave concerns. “I think there’s a lot of red flags,” he said. “And I think there is a lot of concerns about relationships, what was the influence? This has been my concern from day one: it seems there was two or three councillors who were in the know and were appointed as chosen ones to speak on education. And, respectfully, I don’t ever recall council making a decision.”
A majority of council members voted on Wednesday to have the City’s integrity commissioner investigate the relationship between Santos and Wheeler regarding his hiring to consult on BramptonU.
Spending on BramptonU increased over two years
The internal documents suggest the initial contract awarded to SRA was valued at $170,000 on November 18, 2019. Combined with the total of $101,381 paid to ASI, the initial contracts appear to be within the $300,000 budget council approved in September 2019.
The contract between SRA and the City of Brampton was changed four times, a change order obtained by The Pointer shows. The first alteration was made on January 17, 2020, modifying the delivery department for invoices from the community services department to economic development (the original invoice was sent to the CAO’s office). A second change, on February 12, 2020, replaced the contract administrator.
The third change came on August 24, 2020, adding $240,000 plus tax to the previously approved agreement with SRA, raising the contract from $170,000 to $410,000 plus taxes. The change represented an increase of 142 percent. On January 14, 2021, a fourth and final change was made to the contract through the purchase order. The mailing address was moved to the CAO’s office and a further $60,000 plus tax was added to the contract.
A December 4 email from Partridge, SRA’s managing partner, to the City of Brampton shows the final $60,000 charge was to fund 150 hours of work by “two senior consultants” billed at $400 per hour. The note explains: “Over the final weeks of 2020, SRA will continue to liaise with relevant stakeholders within the government of Ontario to establish agreeable terms that will form the basis of the City Of Brampton’s request for the establishment of a Special Purpose Vehicle that will act as the proponent for the establishment of Brampton University… It is SRA’s hope that Brampton will be in a position to submit a formal letter to Ontario in the coming weeks that will include notional approvals and feedback currently being gathered.”
SRA sent invoices to the City of Brampton in a steady stream.
Between November 28, 2019 and February 28, 2020, an invoicing schedule shows payments almost weekly. On November 28, 2019, for example, just 10 days after Brampton awarded SRA its contract, an invoice was sent for $20,000 in government relations and property development, $15,000 for public polling and $10,000 for community engagement. Including tax, this invoice came to a total of $50,850.
SRA did not respond to questions asking to explain what work it had done for “GR, property development”. This work cost Brampton taxpayers $100,000 between November 2019 and February 2020.
Over the same period, SRA invoiced Brampton $30,000 for public polling.
A slide presentation shared with The Pointer by City of Brampton communications staff shows that Mainstreet Research conducted a poll for SRA between December 5 and 11, 2019. “The survey was conducted using automated telephone interviews (Smart IVR),” the slide deck explains. “Respondents were interviewed on landlines and cellular phones. The survey is intended to represent the adult population in Peel Region.”
It’s unclear what the need for the survey was.
A motion passed Wednesday, forwarded by Councillor Medeiros, aims to bring answers.
It demands a full report from interim CAO Paul Morrison investigating the ill conceived BramptonU project managed under his controversial predecessor, who was fired three weeks ago. It also puts a freeze on a project that seemed doomed before it was even started.
“It seems dead in the water; it seems done,” Medeiros told his colleagues.
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