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Montreal mayor raises the ramparts against corruption Add to ...

Assailed by enemies, besieged by police investigations and nearly buried by allegations of corruption, the mayor of Montreal is building up his defences.

First, in the literal sense. Gérald Tremblay is spending $4.3-million to excavate and rebuild the 300-year-old ramparts behind City Hall. Once it is fully restored, the park will feature a 250-metre-long fortification with twin stone fences separated by a trench.

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The historical site won't do much to discourage charging critics, but as Mr. Tremblay leads a tour of his favourite archeological site, he's clearly not bothered by obvious, unflattering symbolism. The mayor is convinced he's digging himself out, too.

A year ago, it seemed Mr. Tremblay was finished. His administration was beset weekly by allegations of shady dealings, intimidation and influence peddling. Senior city administrators were fired, and the police were called in on at least half a dozen construction contracts, including one to fix the roof on City Hall.

Voters gave Mr. Tremblay an unlikely reprieve in last November's election, although a vote split and weak turnout probably did much to save him. After the election, Mr. Tremblay vowed to crack down (and finally finish repairing the roof.)

He put a freeze on all new contracts that went on for six months, hired a controller and set up a city council committee to examine all deals. He decreed the city would no longer hand out contracts worth hundreds of millions to individual companies, breaking them up for smaller bids instead. He also opened competition to firms from outside Montreal for the $3-billion in contracts it awards yearly.

"When I was re-elected, what did I say? I said I'd clean up. We had a problem with intimidation, extortion. Bad things were happening. But things are going better," Mr. Tremblay said. "I don't want to give the impression that everything is perfect. But the fact is that I went through an election where I became the victim. I had to do something."

Early anecdotal evidence indicates Mr. Tremblay's crackdown might be working. Several boroughs report a dramatic dip in the cost of bids from contractors. It will be months before any final tallies, but city administrators say construction contracts are consistently coming in under budget for the first time in years.

The elimination of fixed bids would reduce prices, but other factors might also explain the dip, according to Pierre Hamel, an economist and urban affairs expert. Mr. Tremblay's moratorium on new contracts, combined with the end of some major economic stimulus projects, may have left construction firms hungry for work and more competitive.

"But I do think we were being had. Just to what extent is almost impossible to know," said Dr. Hamel, who works with the Institut national de la recherche scientifique.

"The normal cycle of pricing is probably a factor, but there's no question that being more attentive certainly helps, and that breaking up the pieces [into smaller contracts]is very, very important."

Dr. Hamel said most major cities go through cycles of high probity and base corruption. Maintaining vigilance is difficult because complacency (and sometimes outright corruption) sets in among government officials, and entrepreneurs seek ways to maximize profit, not always ethically.

Mr. Tremblay has also been criticized for a long list of big city projects that he has struggled to get under way, but halting interchange construction and major land redevelopments do not trigger the excitement that the restoration on Champ de Mars does.

The mayor relishes the painstaking details. Masons have numbered, cleaned and carefully replaced each of the stones in the wall, originally set in 1712 to defend Montreal, first against natives, then Americans.

The walls, once six metres tall, were knocked down to mere stubs starting in 1804. Champ de Mars became a British military parade ground. The bases of the walls were partly unearthed in the 1990s, and quickly began to deteriorate from the elements.

Later phases of the project will use the park to reconnect Old Montreal and City Hall to the business district and a metro station, cut off at ground level by a freeway built in the 1960s and 70s.

Critics might suggest Mr. Tremblay has fiddled around with small historical projects while the city endures much bigger problems.

"Montrealers are proud of their heritage," Mr. Tremblay said. "The Olympic Stadium has been criticized a lot, but they're all in favour of our efforts to green up the park surrounding it. They don't criticize those efforts. They criticize if we're not vigilant to make sure we get the right price."

The Champ de Mars project is on time and on budget, Mr. Tremblay quickly added. An open bidding process and fixed contract have helped, he said.

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