Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A bad case of heads buried in the sand

Audit needed into police headquarters fiasco

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In the original version of the British sitcom Yes, Minister, the cynical Sir Humphrey Appleby offered up advice about the consequences of investigations.

"Never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be," advised Appleby, providing a road map for decisions taken by real-life elected officials.

Audits and inquiries can inflict a tremendous amount of political damage. The review of Winnipeg's fire-paramedic station replacement program, for example, was a disaster for Mayor Sam Katz, as it concluded his friend, Phil Sheegl, Winnipeg's former CAO, oversaw an over-budget and badly managed construction project plagued by unfair contract awards.

The pilloried fire-paramedic station project cost taxpayers $3.3 million more than its original budget. The new police headquarters is far more problematic, as it now stands at $76 million above its original target.

Like the fire-paramedic program, the new cop shop has also been plagued by amendments to the construction model and several sole-sourced contracts. City council, however, chose to follow Appleby's advice on Wednesday rather than get to the bottom of the police HQ conundrum.

In an astounding decision, council voted 9-7 to kill a motion to conduct an audit of the project. All seven members of executive policy committee -- plus Couns. Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) and Thomas Steen (Elmwood) -- voted against any further investigation in what appeared to be a whipped vote.

It's disappointing to see nine members of council insert their noggins in the sand. It's also amazing, as several know there are serious problems with the police HQ.

Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt, for example, said it's obvious "absolute incompetence" at the highest level of the civic administration plagued the police HQ. But in the next breath, Wyatt said an audit would be a waste of money because it would only come to the same conclusion as the fire-paramedic station audit: The individual leading the project was "way over his head," in Wyatt's words.

Without mentioning Sheegl's name, Wyatt repeated the last batch of police-HQ cost overruns -- $17.2 million in design changes not covered by a toothless "guaranteed maximum price" agreement -- ultimately cost the former CAO his job.

Wyatt's ostrich imitation led several councillors to point out only an audit can determine precisely what went wrong. "Whether we realize it or not, we've lost the public trust," said St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal.

Katz's uncomfortable coalition would have none of it. St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel, who dismissed the fire-paramedic station audit as flawed, claimed council was kept abreast of every change to the police HQ project.

That simply isn't true. A 2011 report about $28 million in cost overruns didn't mention a proposed "guaranteed maximum price" agreement would be based on a design that was only 30 per cent complete.

Nonetheless, Swandel derided his colleagues for not reading reports. "If you want an audit, maybe we should audit IQ around this chamber," he said.

But the deputy mayor wasn't done. He then accused the media of selectively reporting facts and claimed all answers to questions about the project could be obtained "in five minutes."

In reality, the city kept basic information about the police HQ hidden from the public for more than three years. The initial 2010 city request for proposals for a consultant to design the police HQ was only published Friday, after the Free Press asked why this set of documents was not posted on the city's website.

These documents, by the way, show the city amended the police HQ construction job to a design-build model on June 8, 2010, near the beginning of the procurement phase for the project. In other words, the city made a deliberate, early decision to ask for a design that was "30 per cent complete" as part of a plan to finish the design on the fly.

This is very, very important. A new report to council -- held up by Katz and Swandel as the definitive account of the police-HQ saga -- claims the construction model was amended because of design problems discovered partway through the project.

This is an obfuscation, if not an outright lie. The construction model was amended in June 2010 and the first design contract wasn't awarded until August 2010. Design problems were not reported until 2011 -- and may have resulted, ironically, from the early decision to reduce the scope of the initial design work as part of changes to the construction model.

"Read the report, the answers are there," Katz implored as part of his argument against an audit. No, they are not, Mr. Mayor. Do the right thing and request an audit.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 21, 2013 A5

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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