Acting Waterfront Toronto CEO Michael Nobrega called an Ontario auditor-general’s report that criticized the agency over its plans to build a technology-driven neighbourhood with Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs “constructive," even after it led to his dismissal from the board last week.
The former president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) was one of three provincially appointed directors to be fired by the Progressive Conservatives the evening of Dec. 6 in response to the report, which raised concerns about some aspects of the smart-city proposal. The Dec. 5 report found that some of the project’s bidders, including Alphabet Inc. subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, may have received more information than others during the procurement process; that certain approval timelines were surprisingly short; and that the project should have more government oversight.
“I couldn’t tell you I was expecting it," Mr. Nobrega said of the government’s decision to remove him from the board in an interview on the weekend at the latest public consultation for the planned 12-acre neighbourhood dubbed Quayside. He will remain as acting CEO until a permanent replacement is found. “They’re a one-third shareholder in the Waterfront Toronto corporation, and they have rights – and I respect the rights of shareholders to act in their best interests."
Waterfront Toronto, a tripartite government agency, announced Sidewalk Labs as its “innovation and funding partner” for the development on the city’s eastern lakeshore in October, 2017. It has since faced questions around how data collected through sensors installed in the neighbourhood will be protected and used, and over the process by which it procured a contract with one of the world’s largest companies.
Ontario Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton, who fired Mr. Nobrega, along with former chair Helen Burstyn and University of Toronto president Meric Gertler, said in a statement Dec. 7 that he was "shocked to learn the board was given one weekend to examine the most important transaction in its history before being asked to approve it.'' He also said the board failed to properly consult with its government stakeholders on the project, adding he wouldn’t "speculate on what will happen in the future'' with the development.
Mr. Nobrega declined to discuss the procurement process that resulted in Sidewalk’s win, which happened before his arrival, except to say he had stood by an appraisal by former Ontario associate chief justice Coulter Osborne that the process was fair. But he called Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk’s recommendations, which included assessing whether Quayside needed more provincial oversight, “constructive.” The agency has already said it has moved to implement some of the recommendations. (In a statement about the report, Sidewalk Labs said its staff “are committed to working with all three levels of government to be responsive to any issues of concern.”)
And as for his role as acting Waterfront CEO, which he took on after after former CEO William Fleissig resigned in July, “I’m determined to remain," Mr. Nobrega said.
Following Mr. Fleissig’s departure, then-chair Ms. Burstyn told The Globe that the agency needed a new leader to concentrate “on flawless and relentless execution of some very important projects,” including Quayside. Mr. Nobrega said he took the job pro bono, and was happy to step up: “I took this thing on to make sure there was a seamless transfer of responsibility to a permanent CEO. … I saw a team that was extremely qualified that just needed someone with experienced executive leadership.”
Mr. Fleissig quietly returned to Waterfront Toronto as a management consultant shortly after he left. Mr. Nobrega said this was at his request, to retain institutional knowledge as he dove into his new job, and came at no net cost – instead, he said, the organization spread out Mr. Fleissig’s severance, and that he rejoined out of a desire for public service.
The search for a permanent Waterfront Toronto CEO is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2019.
Mr. Nobrega stressed that the board’s decision to work with Sidewalk Labs in October, 2017, was “a letter of intent to complete a deal,” conditional on a final board vote after more plans and policies are drawn up, then government approvals.
Despite a Sidewalk proposal to store data collected from the community in an independent trust, critics such as Bianca Wylie of Tech Reset Canada have argued that these decisions should not be in a private company’s hands in the first place. Since last summer, a Waterfront Toronto board member and two members of its Digital Strategy Advisory Panel have resigned over concerns about the project, and former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian left her post as an adviser to Sidewalk Labs over concerns about data-identification and privacy.
Ms. Wylie has called for the agreement be ripped up and a new request-for-proposals be issued.
Mr. Nobrega said that would be difficult. “You would be looking at a lot of lawsuits,” he said. But he did note that Waterfront Toronto had “a number of off-ramps or exit strategies” in its current agreement with Sidewalk, if its board decides the partnership is not right. Reached this weekend, Ms. Wylie stood firm with her concern: “Toronto residents are trapped in a deal they didn’t ask for,” she said.
Mr. Nobrega said he believes a smart-city development is crucial to Toronto’s future. He hopes to build a place where young Canadians develop globally competitive skills, working for a mix of both large tech companies and smaller innovators: “I’m a big believer that we have to set the stage to give our young people the tools to compete in the world.”