By Published On: June 4th, 20088 Comments

Victoria BC’s boondoggle of an emergency communications system exemplifies why there’s always another question as to how and why a fiasco happens.
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How did we spend $18 million on an emergency communications system that won’t work during emergencies, from which in May Victoria again threatened to withdraw? Why is there a ghastly video billboard at our arena, even though our politicians claim they opposed it? How can Employment Minister Claude Richmond dismiss studies showing welfare cutbacks ultimately cost more than they save?

Maybe I missed crucial news reports that answered these questions satisfactorily. But most often, no matter how closely I follow media coverage, I constantly still wonder about every story, ‘What’s the truth behind this?’

Even when I read reports and interview people myself, I’m always left with questions. Why is that?

Consider an example. The Capital Region Emergency Service Telecommunications system (CREST) was created for 36 area police, ambulance and fire response agencies. It’s run by a CRD-created corporation; most of its directors are elected local politicians. Since its 2002 launch, we’ve been hearing plenty about this fiasco. Yet like me, you’re probably still wondering, ‘How’d this happen??’

Designed by Motorola, CREST won’t work inside many buildings. It doesn’t work across large areas, like 50% of Metchosin. It crashes during windstorms and usage spikes. Police and fire reps have described CREST as “shocking”, “absurd” and “unacceptable”; many use cell phones instead. Independent studies have confirmed we paid $18 million for this lemon that needs $10.6 million in upgrades.

So how come Motorola hasn’t been sued for this boondoggle?

Those independent studies aren’t available on CREST’s website-only summaries. (Why?) Still, the summary of a 2005 report by Planetworks Consulting is provocative.

“A detailed review of the Communications System Agreement revealed that Motorola met the specifications laid out in that agreement” it states.

That’s why Motorola can’t be sued; apparently, our politicians never asked for a functional system!

Huuuuh?

Our politicians made “material changes” to their own contractual requests to Motorola, clarifies the report, which resulted in a dysfunctional system.

Ah, of course.

Huuuuuh?

I call CREST manager Gord Forth.

“It’s ancient history,” he reassures me; CREST is constructively moving forward.

Still, I respond, it’s hard for the public to have confidence we’re correcting this boondoggle if we don’t know how this boondoggle happened. Could I see the section of the study that discusses in detail the process of making these dysfunctional “material changes”?

Forth refuses (Why?), and warns a Freedom of Information request won’t make a difference.

I search past news articles online. I’m not the only one wondering: CRD director and Saanich Councillor Vic Derman has been researching CREST for several years. In the Globe, he says it makes his “blood boil”, and in a Times-Colonist op-ed, he writes that the whole CREST mess is “beyond belief” and that calling it cause for alarm “runs a severe risk of understatement”.

I meet with Derman, who hands over his binders of research.

At the outset, Motorola warned they’d barely meet 50% of the technical targets without hiking the budget. The CRD and users (police, fire responders etc) were discussing options, when the CREST board suddenly signed a drastically modified agreement at the too-low budget level.

This final agreement with Motorola had no “predefined coverage areas”–meaning swaths of the region could go without service.

Even more stunning, there was absolutely no requirement for creating or testing in-building coverage–police or fire responders calling for back-up from apartment shoot-outs or burning buildings could burn in hell as far as this contract was concerned.

“[I]t does not appear that users approved these changes”, asserts the Planetworks study. Small wonder. This system was so assuredly destined for disaster, it only raises another question: Why were our elected politicians so asinine and shortsighted? Any meager budget savings in 2002 were bound to create exponentially overblown repair costs by… 2003!

Derman says he’s never gotten satisfying answers. “Either they were entirely asleep at the switch, or they were willing to put lives at risk.”

Really?

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard is the only politician who has been on the CREST board from the beginning to today-he’d obviously be the most knowledgeable. Current Langford councillor Denise Blackwell was also involved during the crucial years.

In 2006, Brennan Clarke recounted in the Victoria News his attempts to get answers from them.

Blackwell, Clarke wrote, “didn’t respond to repeated calls, except to leave a phone message saying she is no longer on the board.”

Meanwhile, Leonard told Clarke, “I don’t remember the in-building issue coming up” until after the system was built.

Yet meeting minutes involving Leonard and other documents show in-building coverage was a primary concern discussed for years amongst the board and users. The original Request for Proposals had entire sections dealing with “General In-Building Coverage”, “Specific Building Coverage” and “Portable Indoor Coverage”, and stated, “radio coverage is required to all accessible areas within all buildings in the CRD”. An appendix listed buildings where “special attention” testing was “critical”.

So if Leonard was lying and Blackwell evasive… Why? See how the questions keep coming!

Then sometimes answers come indirectly, like inspiration.

I was watching U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice get cornered in a vast, fundamental lie. She barely blinked, lying further with “I can’t comment”s and “I don’t recall”s. The news show eventually moved on. And I realized something: telling the truth wasn’t particularly important to her. She evidently had other, unspoken values and agendas that seemed more ethically important. Winning an election? Protecting someone? Refusing to surrender to a hypocritical, right-vs-left ritual of public humiliation? Whatever her reasons, in those moments, telling the truth simply wasn’t politic.

And that’s why we hardly ever get truly satisfying answers to how and why boondoggles happen. And it’s why the best answer we’ll probably ever get about CREST came near the 2005 municipal elections, before the widespread, abhorrent failures of CREST would become publicly impossible to ignore.

“What Victoria is doing is making this a political issue,” said Blackwell, adding that CREST problems she’d seen were “minor”.

Leonard, according to the Saanich News, similarly accused some candidates of disparaging CREST merely to score political points. “It’s campaign time. It’s the silly season,” he said.

Yet these statements were coming after Planetworks had already independently declared CREST in desperate need of repairs.

Clearly then, Leonard and Blackwell themselves were trying to use CREST’s creation and supposed success to score political points; so for them, the truth was simply not politic at the time.

But even this isn’t a truly satisfying answer, is it? Are our local politicians really so self-serving they’re willing blatantly lie and risk lives?

I’ve obtained the names of the CREST board at the time the agreement was signed. Should I call every one?

I’d start with Leonard, obviously. Yet what’s left to ask? I can just imagine how uncomfortable this conversation would become, with me putting him on the spot repeatedly trying to get a satisfying answer.

The mere thought of it is making me tired. I’ve already spent many hours, I’m not getting paid enough, I don’t have this much energy or time for this. Besides, how important is CREST in the Grander Scheme?

I’m sure you can relate. At a certain point, it seems, seeking the truth is simply not politic for us, is it?

I guess our politicians know that… which explains a lot.

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Originally published in Focus, June 2008.

8 Comments

  1. rob June 6, 2008 at 1:09 am

    it has long been my opinion that the lower you go on the political ladder, the more corrupt it gets. not because the folks who toil there are necessarily less moral that those higher up, but because they’re such small fish. you wave a few c-notes in front of a municipal councillor, you’re likely to get a much more positive reaction than from, say, a senator. in hicktown, “bigtime” is a new set of teeth.

    so, would it be impolitic to suggest an actual reason why this happened? it would be pure speculation of course…

    no, i’d better not.

  2. Rob Wipond June 6, 2008 at 2:25 am

    or maybe they’re just cheaper at the lower end!

    yes, i sometimes suspect someone(s) got some pay-offs. I have absolutely no evidence, other than the fact that the evidence shows it’s unlikely anyone would be that stupid…

  3. richard June 14, 2008 at 6:33 am

    Your stories make my head burn and my heart ache, Rob. The CREST example is such a useful one for the failings of the Greater Victoria political system.

  4. rob wipond June 16, 2008 at 6:08 am

    thanks for your thoughts, richard.

    though should I feel good that I’m making you share my pain? uh-oh, I’ve never thought of it quite this way…

  5. sandy July 23, 2008 at 11:36 am

    It is not just in Victoria Rob it is all over our sad Country. While your voice is validating I cannot help but wonder if you feel alone in reporting such issues. What has become of investgative reporting? Granted when stories do slap us in the face there seems to be no will do anything that would demand change….perhaps the vehicles of changed have flat tires. Can’t fight city hall so why bother.

  6. Rob Wipond July 23, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Yes, Sandy, I do often feel that as a writer I’m part of a relatively small group.

    And I know; though usually having a local angle, I regard most of my articles as in a sense “universal metaphors”… or at least “global” or “North American-wide metaphors” for what’s happening.

    It’s not too much of a mystery what has happened to investigative journalism. There’s never been a lot of it, but there’s far less now than even just 10 years ago. It’s the centralization and corporatization of our media. Right here in Victoria, for example, Monday Magazine survived for a couple decades publishing provincially and nationally awarded investigative journalists like Ben Parfitt, Sarah Cox, Ross Crockford, James MacKinnon, Alicia Priest, Sid Tafler, and also my own writing. Black Press, a much bigger and richer company, then bought them out and quickly hacked the freelance writer budget to bits and started reducing staff as well. Now it’s been years since any of those writers have done a major feature for Monday.

    Simultaneously, the corporatization of these media means that over time the general climate pushes serious investigative, critical writers out and brings in more writers who enjoy life kissing ass and toeing the line.

    As for the lack of a revolution occurring in the general public including us, yeah, I feel like that’s the theme underlying all my writing…

  7. Ceejayt November 11, 2008 at 2:49 am

    Hi I was wondering what the original budget for CREST was.
    It is causing me concern because of the budget for the Sewage Treatment Plant – not that I am against upgrading the system.

  8. Rob Wipond November 12, 2008 at 4:03 am

    Ceejayt: As mentioned in the article, it was around $18 million originally. And yes, the sewage issue could well turn into a boondoggle on an unimaginably vaster scale. Saanich Councillor Vic Derman, who’s quoted in this article for his concern about the CREST mess, has also been involved with, and has expressed concern about, the sewage treatment plan.

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