The Senate has resumed a controversial contract with a private security company for ushers to open doors in its new building after an estimated $95,000 bill raised questions about how the Upper Chamber seeks sole-sourced contracts and manages the building’s security.
The contractors, hired to open doors inside the Senate of Canada Building on Rideau Street, had been on the job since February but the Senate pressed pause on their presence May 28 to review the contract senior staff had signed with Arlington Group Risk Management. While the contract started at $24,000, it ballooned as it was extended to late June. Though senior staff can approve service contracts up to $35,000 without a competitive process, amounts over that require competitive bidding and approval from the Senate Internal Economy, Budgets, and Administration Committee, the powerful group which handles the Chamber’s legal and financial matters.
The contract was temporarily suspended after Senators expressed concern they were only aware of the particulars via reporting by The Globe and Mail, and questioned whether the Chamber’s procurement rules were being properly followed.
During its June 6 meeting, the Senate Internal Economy Committee voted to continue with the contract that officials signed to address accessibility problems because there aren’t automatic door-openers inside the building.
The renovated Government Conference Centre and former train station is serving as the Senate’s interim home while Centre Block undergoes what could be a decade-long renovation. Navigating through the building often requires swiping a Hill pass through several doors.
The ushers were back in place on June 10 and will remain until the summer adjournment, expected at the end of June.
Though much of the discussion at the June 6 meeting covered security and access, Conservative Senator David Tkachuk (Saskatchewan) said that’s not “the issue” that should most concern the Internal Economy Committee.
“The issue was always about how the contract was delivered and how the contract was accessed,” he said.
The rules say that any sole-sourced contract of more than $35,000 must be approved by the committee, and should be subject to competition. Committee chair Independent Senator Sabi Marwah (Ontario) and committee members only learned about the contract when The Globe and Mail started asking questions about the ushers.
“We have proper procedures to make sure the chairman of the committee is not left out in the dark,” continued Sen. Tkachuk, and senior staff must be “well aware” what the thresholds are and the processes that must be followed.
“That’s the question we have to address,” said Sen. Tkachuk, echoed by Independent Senator Éric Forest (Gulf, Que.), who said “we have to clarify the rules.”
The contract has drawn the ire of the union representing the Parliamentary Protective Service in the Senate, which The Globe reported has filed a grievance on the matter.
Officials reiterated last week that the company doesn’t play a security role
Senators learned the names of six companies the Senate contacted in February, but because that was revealed during a closed portion of the meeting, Conservative Saskatchewan Senator Denise Batters, a deputy chair of Internal Economy, said she wouldn’t disclose the names. She said in discussions among Senators after the meeting that several people noted the company that won the contract was the “only security firm out of the six that we had never heard of.”
Sen. Batters asked three staff if they knew whether any Senator or member of Senate administration had ties or connections to the firm, to which each said no.
While Conservative Senator Donald Plett (Landmark, Man.) said it’s “ridiculous” that people are making $35 an hour to open doors, it’s a “temporary problem” and, after review, it’s clear this was “the best way” to solve accessibility needs in the short term.
“We needed a measure that allows everybody, whether they are physically handicapped or not, access to the building,” he said. “To try to do all of this in a couple of weeks would be literally impossible and this is not a million dollar contract.”
Public Services and Procurement Canada has agreed to reimburse charges up to $90,000, Senate officials said, because the department didn’t meet its requirements to have automatic door-openers installed before Senators moved in earlier this year.
Sen. Batters asked for more information on costs, including whether the Senate would be on the hook for the cost of the halted contract, but officials said that information should be given during the part of the meeting closed to the public.
Julie Lacroix, the director of corporate security at the Senate of Canada, said the contract is “based on need” rather than a set amount, but it had a 10-day notice requirement. She said the Senate could still be expected to pay for the days ushers weren’t working, though officials said they are still talking with the company about the costs and didn’t want to give specifics during the public portion of the meeting.
Senators moved in camera to discuss any other potential costs after Sen. Marwah warned public discussions were “risking negotiations with company.”
The Internal Economy Committee agreed June 6 to continue with the contract after a subcommittee that studied the matter in camera last week made the recommendation in a June 3 letter. Because the letter is not a report tabled with the committee, it can’t be publicly released under CIBA’s confidentiality rules.
Conservative Alberta Senator Scott Tannas, chair of the Long-Term Vision and Plan Subcommittee, which oversaw the move to the Senate’s new home, said he has “every confidence” the problem will get solved over the summer.
Given the October election, which will delay the return of both Chambers in the fall, Sen. Plett noted there will be plenty of time to solve the problem.
“It makes no sense to have people opening doors, but we’ve got to get through the next few weeks and there are more people in galleries. It’s an interesting time to be watching the Senate,” Sen. Tannas said.
Internal Economy also tasked the subcommittee to monitor that progress over the summer “to ensure that they are able to meet projected timelines for the installation of the necessary upgrades to doors and hallways, as required.”
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