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City takes heat from delegates over fire hall replacement

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Winnipeg’s administration came under fire this morning from councillors and citizens for its role in the fire hall replacement project.

At an executive policy committee, several delegates criticized administration for its claim that the public service had acted properly in the construction of four new fire paramedic stations.

"You definitely need a cultural change at city hall," said Colin Craig, Prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Critics focused on a lone sentence in the administrative report, that the administration is not accepting any blame for what went wrong with the project: "Throughout the process of delivering the (fire hall replacement) program, the Public Service accepted the recommendations of council, and followed existing City of Winnipeg by-laws, council policies, administrative standards and practices in a fair manner, per due process and best intentions."

Craig said the statement fuels public mistrust in city hall.

"Someone should have said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding – the public is going to laugh at this,’" Craig said. "Has anyone been held accountable for what happened and how... anyone?"

The administration comments were in response to recommendations in the scathing external audit of the troubled fire hall program.

The fire hall project had a total budget of $15.3 million but ended up costing $18.6 million. That figure is expected to climb higher after the city finalizes the purchase for the land where the Taylor station was built.

The administration’s self-assessment of its actions is in stark contrast to the findings of the team of forensic auditors from Ernst & Young who concluded the fire hall project was marred by severe mismanagement and an uncompetitive bidding process that favoured local developer Shindico Realty.

Council subsequently agreed to hire an outside law firm to determine whether the administration did anything illegal or exposed the city to a lawsuit.

Craig said the administration’s response ignores several serious inappropriate actions as the fire halls were constructed.

"I don’t think the public would buy that the administration followed City of Winnipeg bylaws when councillors were kept completely in the dark about what has happening... when the truth was withheld from councillors trying to understand what has happening," Craig said. "

Coun. Paula Havixbeck said too many people are obsessed with assigning blame while no effort is being made to ensure the mistakes aren’t repeated.

"We just need to own what we own and start working towards cleaning things up," Havixbeck said.

Chief financial officer Mike Ruta defended the public service’s work on the fire hall project and the wording in the administrative report.

Mayor Sam Katz said later that he was troubled by some of the administration’s actions throughout the project but believed that no member of the public service had breached any civic policies or bylaws.

"There are definitely several things that are of major concern to me," Katz said, singling out building one of the fire halls on land the city doesn’t own.

Katz said he believed there should be repercussions for civic staff who deliberately withhold information from council.

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