Vito Sgro registered to run for Mayor of Hamilton Wednesday morning. Sgro spoke with The Public Record editor Joey Coleman, below is the full transcript of the interview.
The Public Record will be interviewing all candidates and releasing those interview in podcast format, Sgro will sit down with Joey Coleman for that interview in August.
COLEMAN: Vito, you’ve registered to run for mayor. It looks like it will be a two-way race in terms of campaigns that are organized and able to spread their message across the entire City, why are you running?
SGRO: I never really wanted to run before. If you talk to anybody who has known me for the last 20 years they are shocked, beyond shocked right now.
The final straw where I really started looking at this was speaking with a now former [provincial] cabinet minister on the issue of LRT.
The reason why we met was there was a rumour, about a year and a half ago, that the Premier may be leaving, and guys like myself – not just me – organizers were getting calls from ministers that were thinking of running [for leadership].
The topic of LRT came up and I ask the Minister straight out ‘can you please tell me why, I’m missing something, why is it so good for Hamilton? I’m not getting it.’
They kind of implied that the main reason was an accounting issue. The LRT is a provincially owned asset, it’s expensed over the life of the asset.
It means the deficit will be lower every year, if they [the province] give money for transit to buses, for example, the province doesn’t own it. It has to take the [accounting] hit in that year. And I looked at this Minister ‘this is the reason, there’s not a transit reason?’ To me that was the final straw, we took a once-in-a-five-lifetime opportunity for transit and the reason why we got this mode was because of accounting and that’s unacceptable to me.
COLEMAN: How do you respond to the argument that we already have the ridership on the B-Line Corridor to justify a LRT, and that the LRT has lower operating expenses?
SGRO: Here’s my issue, we have a very poor transit system, extremely poor. The last time I tried to take it, and it’s been a few months, I’ll be honest with you, I used it to go to the new [GO] station in the North End. The A-Line which is supposed to be this massive line didn’t show up, and I’m thinking to myself was there an accident or something happened? Then I read one of your tweets that apparently this happens a lot.
There are areas of the city that have no transit or its the poorest transit there is. I think this is a once-in-a-five-lifetime opportunity to get a complete bus system with a rapid bus component for the whole city from Fifty Road all the way to Waterdown from Haldimand all the way to the lake. I can’t give that up.
I’m not a big fan of LRT. You can find studies either way, and I’ve looked at all, but you take a look at what’s going on.
Los Angeles got a micro transit system started. It’s in the early stages but it’s basically hit an app and the bus – it’s a van not really a bus – comes to pick you up. Now they’re trying that out. Autonomous vehicles are coming. In Toronto, if you read TheStar this morning, they’re planning a line.
In Vegas, where I spend a lot of time, they’ve already got one line doing that. That’s the future. I want to take money from whatever supposedly coming to us, set up a reserve fund to study transit, with the HSR, with Innovation Centre, with everyone on what’s coming in the future. So we’re ready for whatever is coming down the road, study it, what kind of roads we have to build? How do we put bike lanes properly, so people aren’t getting killed? Is there communication lines we can put in at the same time? and so forth.
When these things come, and they’re coming probably in the next 15, 20, 30 years we’re ready, and we can actually be on the forefront. Why don’t we have the HSR be, I don’t want to use the word guinea pig but, the test case for this. It could also attract a lot of these new research businesses.
COLEMAN: How do you, you’re looking at BRT, what does that BRT look like between Eastgate and McMaster?
SGRO: First of all, in my, in the long range plan it’s Fifty Road to pass McMaster. There are too many areas where they have to take a cab to get to the bus, nobody’s going to do that, very few people do it. It’s very costly.
More buses right now to get the ridership up, we’re going the wrong way.
We’re not growing we’re a ways away from where we have capacity problems but I hope we have capacity problems down the road. That means the people on the Mountain are using it, getting into the Lower City and vice-versa. I don’t see how a LRT in one part of the city solves our transit problems.
Everyone says down the road we can do it, no there is no down the road, this is a once, like I said God knows how long chance.
COLEMAN: So what does it look like, right now we do have a capacity problem between McMaster and Downtown, a significant capacity problem. What I’m trying to get – I get what you saying about spreading thoughout the city – you know that I travel across the city
SGRO: Everywhere, yes you do.
COLEMAN: So I understand, that. What I’m trying to get it is what’s your policy position, what are you going to do, while you are addressing the outer transit issues, what are you doing between McMaster and Downtown?
SGRO: If we have to add more buses, I’m going to consult with the people who do this, the HSR, and whoever if we need more buses will do more buses, and again will have the resources to do that.
COLEMAN: By BRT are you looking at properly segregated lanes for the BRT?
SGRO: I will let the experts tell me what’s the best way, where we made a mistake, and we’re not going to do this again, I would have loved in a perfect world to have a piazza down King Street. We don’t have perimeter roads, we could have did it long long time ago that’s never going to happen now, now we put bike Lanes on Cannon – which I think is a great idea – but if we had that bypass like the [Highway] 404, or wherever in these other cities, we could have got a little more creative but we have to face the reality of what it is.
And Downtown is what it is, and I’m not going to put a train down there, it’s very fragile downtown, I’ve been here twenty something years, and I love what’s happening, I really really do it’s exciting to bring people downtown. To show them King William, to show them James North, show them, what’s happening on John, everywhere.
You do something like this and it’s not going to five years, Waterloo is two to two-and-a-half years behind, and there are other issues there. And God Bless them, I wish them all the best I really do, Ottawa just started and their six or seven months behind. Bombardier’s got to recall all of their cars from Toronto this morning.
I don’t know, they just got them and they’re going to be out six weeks. There is going to be confusion and everything else involved. I fear for what’s going to happen downtown.
COLEMAN: Infrastructure along King Street, infrastructure work along King Street has been delayed, it needs to be done. How are you going to address the fact that we do have to rip up the large parts of King Street to do infrastructure underneath?
SGRO: It won’t take five to seven years, and it won’t – that I’ve already checked into it. You take a look at what Ottawa did and Ottawa did a great job they really really did they built a ridership up, fantastically.
That BRT system worked, I actually spoke, because he was on the Board with me at IO [Infrastructure Ontario] and he said it was the most elegant system, he says once you put those rails in, there there, where as with BRT if you have to change something you have the flexibility. There is going to be no matter what you do there’s going to be some issues on Rymal, Highway 20 [Centennial Parkway], James and so forth but it’s not going to be and it’s going to be like I said seven years or so and it won’t be that long with the bus.
COLEMAN: Bus lanes? Is that an option?
SGRO: Again, the experts will tell me with the proviso that we don’t completely clogged everything, what I’m against 100%, and we have to change this if this is the mentality, I want everyone to take transit, I want them to take it because it’s the best way to do it. I don’t ever want to hear ‘I’m going to make it tough for you’.
Okay, I’m going to make it so you want to, you know you have to get out of your car, that’s going to go. It’s going to be, yeah you know what, it’s the best way to do I’m leaving my car at home, I’m going to take a bike, I’m going to take the bus, I’m going to do whatever. I always find that you get a better response when you want to go then when you’re forced, I never want to tell everyone you have to go Downtown.
I tell them you want to go Downtown, you’re missing out you want to be there. It’s the same mentality with transit.
COLEMAN: Okay, we’re going to do a podcast interview and we’re going to have on this conversation topic.
SGRO: I love that. I’m not going to have all the answers, I’m not going to try to bullshit you that I do, and I’ll be honest, I’ll say on that issue I don’t know and I’ll find out.
COLEMAN: I want to ask is this is a question to get at your thinking you’re talking about a external auditor.
SGRO: I don’t even want to call it that, it’s the Auditor General. In my opinion [we] have an Integrity Commissioner, most useless job, not the person I’m sure is a very find person, the position is the most useless position there is. You need outside oversight, not beholden to Council, not hired by Council, it’s appointed by the Province for six-year term which goes over two Council terms.
They will have complete right to go into all city funded agencies and departments and so forth like the Auditor General does in Ontario and the federal government. It’s not just financial, which is very very important, but its programs. ‘This program is not working, that one’s working great, we should do more of that’. The problem is the media, mainstream media, focuses on the 10 or 15% of the bad, and I get it it’s salacious, it sounds fantastic. What you don’t read, because we got this at IO [Infrastructure Ontario] when it’s embarrassing, but there’s no doubt, 85% of it is your doing a great job here, continue that, do this. It brings in more transparency, and there’s nothing bad about that. Letting you see what’s going on and actually takes these potential politician off the hook, there it is, I’m not hiding anything from you.
COLEMAN: My question was going to be if you were looking at using Section 223 [of the Municipal Act] which is the Auditor General function. Now 223,
SGRO: Not the same Auditor General, I don’t understand how a City this size with expenditures in the billions doesn’t already have it, such as Hamilton I don’t want to say that, how does Mississauga or Toronto – which needs two Auditor Generals – I don’t understand how it’s not mandated.
COLEMAN: Back to the Integrity Commissioner, I get your position is that the position has been set up flawed, I’d submit to you that this Council has intentionally chosen an Integrity Commissioner with a reputation for not investigating compared to somebody like Robert Swayze who is by far the most excellent Integrity Commissioner in the province.
SGRO: I think you just brought up the most important point, this Council chose. You have to take that part out of the equation. The Ministry in charge is going to, or whoever from the Province will appoint an Auditor General, and I don’t know the current Ontario Auditor General. We had to deal with her, I don’t agree with everything she said, but I’m glad she’s there. It brings in for great dialogue, auditors are people we have opinions, we have interpretations, there’s nothing wrong with going back and forth, and it would get heated. That’s good and as long as it’s out in the public, I have no problem with it.
COLEMAN: So let’s say the Province comes back and says you’re the municipality, you’re autonomous, you’re responsible for figuring out how you appoint your own Auditor General.
SGRO: I can’t imagine how they would do that, it goes against what an Auditor General is. You never, in auditing, have someone appoint someone who’s going to audit me.
It doesn’t look good to the public. There might not be anything specifically wrong, but the appearance is awful, and if the appearance is awful it may just negate everything they find. I’m going to talk to Council, it’s not like I’m going to be a dictator and say ‘this is going to happen, this is going to happen, this is going to happen,’ but I’m going to urge the provincial government after discussions with Council this is needed, and it’s not about finding ‘I got you, I got you’ it’s about making sure that your systems are proper. I’ve read audit reports from years ago, internal audit reports they weren’t very good. They’re better now, but I want a robust audit risk assessment, and if I’m honoured enough to win, I’m going to take that part over. I’ve had experience with IO [Infrastructure Ontario], with the Port Authority, with HECFI for four months – which is proof enough of why you need one. I hope that’s going to happen and I’m going to urge it. To me, it’s vital for every city.
COLEMAN: The question I get asked when I’m sitting in Stoney Creek having tea – Stoney Creek which is your home territory – I get asked ‘who the hell is Vito Sgro?’
SGRO: I get that a lot myself, from people who know me. I’ve never sought the spotlight, which again people wondering what the hell am I doing right now. This is perfect time. I’m winding down my practice, I’m getting out of it. It’s 30 years, I’ve loved every minute of it but it’s time for me to go. It really is, and it’s cliché, if you don’t do something when you can then you can stop bitching.
I’ll give it a shot, if it doesn’t, I’m not the Mayor now, if I don’t win I won’t be the Mayor. At least I know I have tried and there are things that are very important, not just transit, although it’s a big thing. There’s an issue with poverty and housing, if we’re not at the crisis point yet we’re going to be there very soon. I want, within 90 days, not-for-profits groups, developers, I want the Province, because I’m not thrilled at how the school board acts like a land baron.
I don’t know what the status is of Delta [Secondary School] that wasn’t built through the school board, that was the City of Hamilton way way way way back then, that would be perfect housing. There are programs at IO [Infrastructure Ontario] where the Province sells provincial lands at a discount as long as the developer provides X amount of geared to income for 30 years and it’s not ghettoized. You’ll never know where they are in the whole project. They’ve done this in Toronto on the Don Lands, it’s been fantastic. I want, and I’m not going to pick a number because you’re destined to fail, but after 90 days of this group getting together meeting, I want X thousands built by [the time] the term [is] over and I want them built.
Enough of money for ‘here $50-million for poverty’ but that’s two million for the next 20 years, you can’t even buy a house in Ancaster for that. How does that solve poverty?
[EDITORS NOTE: Council’s present $50-million poverty reduction plan is $5-million per year, spread over 10 years]
The other issue we need more [social] navigators. I’ve talked to people on the front-lines who work with people with mental problems, drug problems – the money is there but they can’t get the people who need it to the money.
The City did a pilot program and it worked fantastic. These people knew who needed it, and make sure they got to the services. It has a bit of a cost but the results were fantastic, so there’s issues like that.
The economy, how in the hell did the City not know about the Stelco Lands being sold – it’s unbelievable to me that that happened. That was a big part of what I wanted to push, because I was on the Port Authority. We could have done a magnificent things with containers.
Container not just warehouse, its value added manufacturing and clean. You bring the containers and you work on them, you build something, you put them back on a container they go out.
We were going to do that then the governments changed and went back to the bulk port, which is unfortunate.
We paid, when I was on the port, a $185,000 an acre on Pier 22, it was a third of that. [the Stelco Lands deal]. How does value go down and don’t tell me about contamination – it was just it was contaminated back then. So, I don’t know how they got that land, that cheap.
Now if Stelco actually manufactures, with real wages, and follows environmental guidelines I’m okay with it. Because every good job spins off into five or six. If they’re just going to, because Bedrock [Industries] sell this, we know that. If it’s just a sweetener for down the road and that land sits idle, I have a problem with that.
There’s a whole whack I want to get through. It’s going to come out, everybody asked he wanted me to get the website out right away. Ff I’m not going to do it right, I’m not going to put it up. It’ll be up in due time, people will be able to get a hold of me, and we’re going to have a dialogue. Let the people decide.
COLEMAN: Thank you Vito.
If you accept the rationale offered up by an anonymous (alleged) former cabinet member (not identified as being on a related portfolio), here’s the thing: If the province’s $1B investment only makes sense as an accounting exercise in amassing infrastructure assets, that $1B commitment itself cannot stand regardless of preferred technology, unless you assume that the City cedes ownership of whatever mode that happens to be. In short, if he’s right, there is no “once-in-a-five-lifetime opportunity”. There’s just business as usual, which means that the City kicks in a third to a half of whatever capital costs are associated with whatever it wants to do transit-wise. It has access to provincial and federal gas tax revenue streams, which amount to around $40 million annually. So that helps with the capital expense of improving transit. But there’s also operating costs to this plan, and if you double or triple or quadruple the level of drivers and buses on the road, guess what? You need to double or triple or quadruple your transit budget. And that means insulating transit from council squeamishness. Because part of the reason transit is crap in the outlying areas is area rating, and councillors who won’t champion transit in any form. And to be honest, that sounds like Sgro. His position on transit is that he doesn’t really have one. Except that he spends a lot of time in Vegas.
“I’ve had experience with IO [Infrastructure Ontario]”
And what an experience! Consider what the province’s Auditor General had to say about IO under Sgro’s board stewardship (July 2013 to May 2018):
• Deferred maintenance of government buildings has more than doubled from $420 million as of March 31, 2012, to $862 million as of March 31, 2017. Over the last six years, the condition of government properties has deteriorated from excellent to almost a poor level of condition as measured by the industry standard.
• Infrastructure Ontario does not obtain enough information from its two project managers to assess whether procurements of vendors for client ministry and agency capital projects are done in a competitive and fair manner
• Infrastructure Ontario informed us that its initial cost estimates for capital projects are limited as they do not factor in the additional costs that might be incurred to address actual site conditions.
• Deferred maintenance of government-owned buildings—the amount still needed to keep properties to a minimum standard—more than doubled between 2012 and 2017, from $420 million to $862 million. Over the last six years, the average condition of government properties has deteriorated from excellent to almost poor, as measured by industry standards. For example, capital repairs at a government lab were deferred for five years, affecting its service delivery.
• Infrastructure Ontario does not obtain sufficient information from project managers to assess whether the procurement of vendors for client ministry and agency capital projects is done in a competitive and fair manner. Project managers are also not held accountable for meeting the original completion dates of capital projects.
• Project managers are not held accountable for meeting the original project completion dates. Project managers can revise project completion dates while the project is ongoing and Infrastructure Ontario does not track these dates.
• Over $170 million in office accommodation costs could be saved annually if effective steps are taken to reduce the space occupied per government staff person to comply with the 2012 Office Accommodation Standard of 180 rental square feet per person set by the Ministry of Infrastructure. Neither the Ministry nor Infrastructure Ontario has set a goal for when this standard should be met.
• Almost $19 million was spent in 2016/17 on operating and maintaining 812 vacant buildings. We found that about 600 of the 812 buildings had been vacant for an average of almost eight years. For the other 212 buildings, Infrastructure Ontario could not readily determine when the building became vacant.
On BRT: “It won’t take five to seven years, and it won’t – that I’ve already checked into it. You take a look at what Ottawa did and Ottawa did a great job they really really did they built a ridership up, fantastically.”
“Ottawa implemented Canada’s first BRT system (the Transitway), which opened in 1983. It was built in stages beginning in 1978 and construction ended in 1996, comprising of 19 miles.”
It’s 16 miles from University Plaza to Fifty Road.
Was this interview conducted with voice recognition technology? There are a lot of spelling mistakes and in some cases words out of place. This reflects unfairly on the person being interviewed. Good journalism needs to be edited.
“I’ve had experience…with HECFI for four months”
How many meetings would that entail?
“Former HECFI board member Vito Sgro, who as chair of HECFI’s audit committee before it was dissolved by the city, submitted his financial report to the new board, and said that changes need to happen at the organization… Sgro, who was only a board member for two months.”