https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/06/10/city-under-fire-for-awarding-1-million-in-contracts-for-private-security-for-torontos-parks.html

Toronto city staff awarded $1 million in sole-sourced contracts to private security companies to prevent homeless people from setting up encampments in public parks, a decision one councillor says was made improperly without council oversight.

Staff members issued the contracts, which were broken into two awards that fell below the $500,000 limit put on sole-source deals issued by senior municipal staff, ahead of a council debate last month about how to respond to the encampments that sprung up earlier in the pandemic.

But staff didn’t provide councillors at that meeting with details of the contracts. Coun. Gord Perks said he learned about them from community advocates afterwards, and he believes staff may have overstepped their authority by not seeking council approval for the spending.

The city maintains the procurement followed all applicable city rules, and staff did keep council apprised about its encampment security plans.

The city’s plan to hire round-the-clock security to stave off a return of the encampments that arose earlier in the pandemic first came to public attention early last month, after staff posed a request for proposal (RFP) seeking firms for the work.

News of the plan prompted criticism from some council members and advocates, who said it risked criminalizing homeless people and that money allocated to security would be better spent finding homes for those in need.

The city maintains it has a duty to prevent encampments so that public parks remain “safe and accessible to all.” Private security guards aren’t directly responsible for enforcement, but the city says their presence allows staff to quickly call in housing and other supports when those experiencing homelessness show up in parks.

At a council meeting on May 12, some councillors tried to stop the RFP and look at alternative strategies to deal with encampments, but their motion was voted down.

But what was unclear to at least some councillors at the time was that weeks before the debate, the city had already entered into agreements with two companies to do the same work covered by the RFP.

According to municipal procurement records posted online, the city awarded Logixx Security and Valguard Security separate sole-sourced contracts for park security worth up to $500,000 each, starting April 13. The city says the two contracts, which have an end date of Sept. 30, are interim agreements in place until the work can be awarded on a more permanent basis through the RFP. The tender closed on May 30 and the city is reviewing submissions.

Perks (Ward 4, Parkdale—High Park), who tried to introduce the motion to stop the RFP, said staff should have briefed councillors on the sole-sourced contracts, but never did.

Noting staff also never brought the RFP to council for approval before it was issued, Perks said the city’s public service has shown a troubling lack of transparency around the encampment prevention plan.

Staff “have consistently not informed council or the public around the hiring of security guards (for encampments),” said Perks.

“There’s a very important matter of public policy here, which is are we investing public money in housing people, or are we investing public money in policing people who are homeless?”

Perks also said he was concerned that the way staff awarded the two contracts may have violated Toronto’s Municipal Code, which authorizes the city manager to issue sole-sourced contracts without council approval only if they are valued at $500,000 or less.

Perks said in this case, staff’s decision to divide $1 million worth of work into two contracts small enough to not require council approval makes it appear as though they “deliberately split the contract so they could avoid telling council they were doing this.”

“I don’t know who decided this or why it was decided, but it is wrong and we need an immediate explanation,” he said.

In an email, city spokesperson Anthony Toderian said staff executed all procurements for security services “within applicable City staff authorities.” He said staff kept council informed by reporting in a June 2021 report that members of the city’s corporate security department and licensing division would proactively monitor parks to respond to any encampments as they emerged.

“To fulfil this obligation, Corporate Security uses contracted guard services,” Toderian said.

He said that last fall, in accordance with the city’s procurement policies, staff approached a security vendor already on contract with the city to work on the encampment prevention plan, but the company said it was unable to. Because no existing security provider could do the work, staff issued the non-competitive contracts.

Toderian noted that funding for park security was listed in the corporate real estate division’s 2022 budget submission, and after council approved it as part of the city budget in February, staff went ahead with the RFP.

Some councillors have said the budget submission didn’t make clear how the security would be used.

During the council debate on May 12, staff never explicitly mentioned the two $500,000 contracts. However, Toderian said staff referenced previous security contracts multiple times, and Patrick Matozzo, executive director of corporate real estate management, told council the RFP was “a continuation of services we’ve provided over the last while.”

In an interview Diana Chan McNally, a Toronto advocate for the homeless, accused city staff of misleading the public and elected officials by not making clear during the debate that they had already issued contracts for the encampment plan.

She noted that staff have repeatedly declined to provide estimates to the media or councillors for how much the RFP might cost, citing the need to keep the procurement process competitive, but “they could have extrapolated that (cost) based on these other contracts.”

The city had previously faced criticism for spending nearly $2 million to clear camps at three parks last summer, and Chan McNally argued staff likely wanted to avoid another controversy.

“I think it’s clear that they meant to obfuscate what was happening — that they didn’t want the public to find out,” she said.

The city says security guards will focus on Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra Park, Lamport Stadium, and Dufferin Grove. A mobile team will rotate through Moss Park and Barbara Hall Park.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr