Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Former fire chief clears the air
Believes he acted properly on crucial file
REID Douglas has finally realized he’ll never get his job back as chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.
There were many times since his dismissal Sept. 25 that he believed if he could tell his side of the story, he’d be rehired and publicly vindicated.
Douglas, a firefighter for 40 years, is still looking for vindication but he has grudgingly accepted he’ll never again put on a WFPS uniform.
"I did nothing wrong," Douglas said during a set of exclusive interviews this week with the Free Press. "I did absolutely nothing wrong other than try and provide the best infrastructure and the best working conditions for my staff and for that, I lose my job."
For the past year, Douglas had been portrayed by many at city hall as the fall guy for a fire hall-replacement program that went 22 per cent over budget.
The initial price tag for four new fire halls was $15.3 million, but the new cost is pegged at $18.6 million. That figure could climb because the city has yet to buy the land the fourth hall was built on from local developer Shindico Realty, which built all four halls.
Douglas said while the public and council were preoccupied with the fire hall project, he was also facing a backroom rebellion at the WFPS headquarters over duty reassignments, which he believes had a role to play in a human resources review that was publicly identified as the cause of his dismissal.
The controversial land swap became public in August 2012, along with knowledge the city was building a fire hall on land on Taylor Avenue it did not own. Councillors became enraged over the backroom manoeuvring, cancelled the land swap, and at the Sept. 24, 2012, meeting ordered an external audit into the project.
Douglas was fired almost a year to the day later — three weeks before the audit was released. The city said his dismissal wasn’t related to the pending audit release, but alluded to the human resources review of his department.
Douglas said when he met with CAO Phil Sheegl, he wasn’t given a reason for his dismissal. Sheegl referenced the human resources review, which had been done in the spring, but Douglas said Sheegl refused to discuss specifics from the review.
"He just said there were issues and we’re parting company."
The Ernst & Young audit did not attach any blame to Shindico but found city officials had given Shindico information not available to other developers interested in the project; and the city had placed unreasonable restrictions on the original request for proposals to construct all four fire halls, which resulted in all four contracts being awarded to Shindico.
The audit said the project was poorly managed, Douglas and his staff lacked the expertise or resources to conduct the land swap and Sheegl had responsibility for what had occurred.
When the audit was released, most councillors alleged Douglas was fired to prevent him from talking about who gave direction on the project.
Douglas admitted he lacked the expertise to administer land deals and oversee construction projects, but added he took direction from Sheegl and sought advice from him and Joshi.
"There was no secrets between them (Phil Sheegl and Deepak Joshi) and myself as far as the station project went," Douglas said. "They, Phil for sure and Deepak in a lot of cases, played a hands-on role in brainstorming and working through a lot of the issues.
"The contact I had (with Sheegl) was always to move this project along. Get it built. Get it done, make sure we meet deadlines, make sure this land swap gets done and all this other type of stuff."
Douglas said he was just as surprised as anyone that details involving cost overruns and land swaps were not brought to council’s attention.
Douglas admits to agreeing to the land swap as a concept, but said he assumed it would have been approved by council.
"That’s not our call. It’s council’s call at the end of the day. City property is at the will of council."
While Mayor Sam Katz has denied any knowledge of the fire hall project, Douglas said he questions whether that is true, adding that Sheegl met with Katz on a regular basis.
"I don’t know," if this was discussed between Sheegl and Katz, Douglas said. "I think it would be a stretch, over a number of months and given the controversy that would surround this, that it wouldn’t have been discussed at some political level."
Douglas said in addition to Sheegl and Joshi, chief financial officer Mike Ruta was informed about the cost overruns and chief legal officer Michael Jack knew about the land swap.
Douglas said he doesn’t know why they didn’t give the information to the politicians before the audit was ordered. "That surprises me. My role is to report to the CAO through the COO. My role is not to report directly to council. All I can do is tell the CAO, the COO, what is going on and what they do with that information is between them and council.
"I made the assumption... that something of this significance would have been vetted through some political arena, that somebody would have been made aware of it."
After his firing, Douglas made a surprise appearance at the October council meeting, saying he was available for questions but procedure was invoked and no questions were allowed.
Last month, Douglas sent a confidential letter to councillors pleading for his job back. He said only one councillor contacted him. "I just think they (council) don’t want to deal with it, or think they can deal with it."
Douglas said he hasn’t been paid since he was fired. His lawyers are negotiating severance with the city.
Douglas said he expects to go into business with his sons.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2013 A3
Updated on Friday, December 20, 2013 at 9:48 AM CST: Douglas was fired three weeks before the audit was released.
December 21, 2013 at 6:28 PM: Corrects typo.
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