The cover article in Maisonneuve magazine’s current issue explores bid-rigging among companies that plow snow in Montreal. The story is as eye-opening as it is discouraging.
It is not really surprising, of course, that the snowplowing industry is crooked. Jacques Duchesneau’s blockbuster report last September for Quebec’s transport ministry concluded that this industry (among many others involved with roads) was “fertile ground for collusion.”
But, restricted by his narrow mandate, Duchesneau touched only on the Quebec government’s snow-removal contracts (a subject that took up only half a page of his 70-page report). Maisonneuve explores this rot at the municipal level and in greater depth, focusing on private companies working on Montreal streets.
The article by Selena Ross in the Montreal anglo quarterly describes pervasive big-rigging on snow-removal contracts across the city, where each of the 19 boroughs awards contracts independently.
“The system is maintained through violence and coercion,” she writes. Feisty little guys who won’t agree beforehand on who should be the low bidder risk a range of consequences: snowblower-crippling cinder blocks concealed in snow banks, bricks through their vehicles’ windows, sugar in their vehicles’ gas tanks. If such hints don’t do the job, large prosperous companies – some of them belonging to the big construction companies – will underbid the little guy on the next round of contracts to try to drive him into bankruptcy.
But, for me, the worst thing is not the tough-guy entrepreneurs’ collusion. Rather, it’s the tacit acceptance of that collusion by the relatively genteel bureaucracy. The white-collar municipal world in effect allows the bid-rigging virus to flourish.
As Maisonneuve puts it, “The culture of resignation among borough employees is nearly as pervasive as collusion itself. Working for the city is not only an education in civil engineering, public administration or contract management, but a long study in power dynamics: learning what you can and can’t control, and which lines not to cross. One borough staffer – who described snow removal as a ‘civilized mobster business’ – admitted that, eventually, he stopped caring.
“ ‘We work with these guys every day,’ another municipal employee said. ‘We play like we don’t know anything.’ ”
A company’s raison d’être is to make as much money as it can. But civil servants, and the elected officials who watch over them, are supposed to serve the public interest. Many don’t.
Corruption would mean bribes, and the magazine found no evidence of that. From a colluders’ viewpoint, however, public servants’ resignation can be just as useful as their outright venality.
This resignation can take many forms. Officials, for example, “rarely carry out checks that would help prevent crooked bidding.” Their record-keeping can also be so lax as to prevent any paper trail: Ross examined records of 250 contracts from recent years; only nine revealed who had won the contract and for how much money.
Coming on the heels of many other exposés, this probe provides further evidence that:
It is journalists – not politicians or the Montreal police – who consistently sound the alarm on sleaze in this city. That’s a sad commentary on local politicians and cops.
That contracting-out too often fails to give Montreal its hoped-for savings. The article doesn’t estimate the burden to municipal taxpayers, but it would be considerable.
That Montreal taxpayers (who pay the Canada’s highest municipal/school taxes) are caught between two unpalatable ways to get their streets plowed: rip-off cartels on the one hand and, on the other, municipal road-workers who, according to the Institut de la statistique du Québec, earn an absurd 31-per-cent more in salary and benefits than their provincial counterparts.
Like Duchesneau, Maisonneuve does not name names of offending companies. The Charbonneau commission, however, will have both the mandate and staff to do that, and it has authority to look at municipal as well as provincial contracts. Terrific.
Yet long-lasting reform in Montreal would depend on more than just cleaning up culprit industries. It would also require shaking up this municipal culture of connivance and hiring – and electing – people who won’t look the other way.