Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Province is finally wading into the mess at city hall

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Kevin Chief, the rookie minister with responsibility for all matters pertaining to the City of Winnipeg, has suddenly found himself in the middle of a genuine scandal.

Neither he nor his government is responsible for the real estate audit mess that envelops Winnipeg city hall. And yet, as the province's chief intermediary with its capital city, Chief has an active role in determining how it's all going to play out.

On Monday, the city made public the first of two audits that examined the construction of four fire-paramedic stations. The audit found chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl broke rules to allow Shindico Realty, a company with strong business and personal ties to Sheegl and Mayor Sam Katz, to obtain four lucrative contracts.

Since those findings were released, city hall has been consumed by a free-for-all game of dodge ball.

Councillors are firing off allegations and demands in all directions. Some want Katz to resign. Others want a judicial inquiry. Some want outside legal advice on potential criminal activity.

How does Chief play into all this mayhem? As the province's overseer of all things Winnipeg, Chief has a responsibility to ensure the city gets help when it's needed, or intervenes if the city demonstrates it has lost the ability to deal with the mess itself.

Both scenarios are in play right now.

There is abundant evidence the problems uncovered by the audit are beyond the capacity of the city to manage. There are lots of promises about how this will never happen again. But it appears more and more likely no one involved will be held accountable. That was clear when Sheegl engineered a sudden departure, and a lucrative golden parachute severance deal, a few days before the audit naming him was released to the public.

The province has been a fairly uninterested party to date. In 2009, city council passed a motion requesting assistance in setting up an office to investigate conflict-of-interest allegations against elected officials.

The motion marked an important moment in the political life of Katz, as council reared up and voted against him to make the request.

The province told the city it already had the power to create the office. Council said it wanted powers to sanction elected officials, or compel evidence, which would require provincial legislative amendments. The province yawned.

And then, nothing. Until this week.

With renewed requests for help in setting up a COI office, Chief stepped into the fray with a promise to help the city in any way he could. That could include legislative changes to give that new official the powers to investigate and punish elected officials.

This has been a huge issue at city hall, and Chief's pledge to consider legislative amendments is significant. Going back over a number of years, concerns about conflicts of interest involving Katz have been raised without any investigation or consequence because, quite frankly, there has been no authority or process for dealing with that.

Concerns were raised. The media ate up the stories for a few days, and then on the whole they evaporated. The pattern has allowed Katz to continue to hold office despite several clear ethical transgressions.

The city was right to ask for help. The province was wrong to dismiss that request out of hand.

Chief's response now is rather inadequate, like offering a tree-planting program to someone fighting a raging forest fire. It's not a bad gesture, but not necessarily commensurate with the gravity of the current problem.

What could Chief do? It's hard to say, because everyone agrees the results of the second audit -- a broader look at city real estate transactions -- will likely prove whether there is enough here to warrant a more serious review, perhaps even a judicial inquiry.

Unfortunately, in the here and now, it's quite clear council has lost control of the situation. The terms of reference for the audits are limited and ripe for manipulation. Investigation has been incomplete, and council has shown it has little idea about what to do with the findings.

Chief and the province have moved a little in offering help to create a COI office at the city. However, he must know by now this one gesture is not going to be enough to satisfy those who want real accountability at city hall.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 A4

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