City council says ‘no’ to Bluewater Power probe – again

Bluewater Power

Troy Shantz

City council has rejected yet another attempt to explore the inner workings of Bluewater Power.

Coun. Mike Stark last week asked for a city staff report explaining what controls Sarnia has over the utility and it’s independent governance.

Stark’s request had the backing of councillors Terry Burrell, Brian White and Nathan Colquhoun.

“There’s just some lack of transparency and accountability (and) whatever staff can do to help us understand better what kind role we can play in cleaning that up — that would be ideal,” Colquhoun told the Oct. 5 meeting.

But the request failed in tie vote, with councillors Margaret Bird, Dave Boushy, George Vandenberg and Mayor Mike Bradley opposed.

Council’s ninth member, Bill Dennis, is married to Bluewater Power CEO Janice McMichael-Dennis. He declared a conflict of interest and did not vote.

Sarnia is the largest shareholder of Bluewater Power, which announced this spring its dividend to city taxpayers was being reduced by $200,000 because of COVID-19.

Coun. Stark had already sought spending cuts and detailed financial information from the utility, which is 86.5% owned by the city.

Several other attempts to have Bluewater Power open its books and explain managerial compensation have likewise failed.

“There has been a wanton disregard for the acceptance that Bluewater Power is taxpayers’ money,” Stark said after the meeting.

City staff agreed last week to disclose itemized expenses for a Col. Chris Hadfield public Walk of Fame event held last summer. The event was largely funded by a $10,000 donation from Bluewater Power and arranged through the mayor’s office.

How that expense was approved without council’s knowledge is a question that’s been raised twice this summer.

Mayor Mike Bradley, who is opposed to digging into Bluewater Power’s financials, said the company is one of the top performers in Canada. He was a part of its creation 20 years ago and there’s no reason to believe it’s not functioning as it should, he said.

“If there were serious issues there I’d be the first one to lead the charge,” he said after the meeting. “I’ve seen no evidence of that. But the hint that there is something wrong bothers me a great deal.”

Councillors Stark, Colquhoun, and Boushy attended Bluewater Power’s annual general meeting in September. Stark wanted to ask company directors about its financial reporting.

Directors Firman Bentley and Richard Grogan, who signed off on a 100-page company audit earlier this year, did not attend the meeting due to COVID-19 safety protocols, said CEO Janice McMichael-Dennis.

She offered to answer Stark’s questions, but he said he wants to speak directly to the board.

“I would like to talk to (the) people that signed their name to a document that has a $3.108-million expenditure without any explanation,” said Stark, referring to an audit line item identified as ‘other.’

“She can’t explain that because she didn’t sign it,” he added.

Sarnia is the largest of six municipalities that own Bluewater Power. In addition to providing hydro services to 35,000 households, the utility has several other companies under its corporate umbrella, accounting for an additional $20 million in revenue annually.

Since its inception in 2000, the utility and its subsidiaries have paid out almost $45 million to municipal shareholders, McMichael-Dennis said.