Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A political flip-flop we can all get behind

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Given all the work piling up on the city auditor's desk, it's easy to understand why council wouldn't want to investigate another Winnipeg project that went terribly wrong.

Last fall, our elected officials squirmed through a scathing fire-paramedic review. This winter brings the potentially troublesome real estate audit, while throughout 2014, city auditors are slated to release reports about everything from the performance of Winnipeg's 311 contact centre to Waverley West road-construction cost overruns.

There is only so much work a group of auditors can do. But that's no excuse for council's reluctance to order up an audit into Winnipeg's new police headquarters, a project that now comes with a $210-million price tag.

In November, council voted 9-7 against auditing the police HQ, whose price has ballooned by $75 million over four years and is now nearly 10 times the cost of a project it replaced -- fixing the exterior of the Public Safety Building.

In November, a slim majority of council believed there was no need to conduct a police-HQ audit, albeit for contradictory reasons. Mayor Sam Katz maintained an administrative report about the overruns had all the answers. Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt declared the answers weren't worth knowing because they would merely illustrate more administrative incompetence. And seven of their colleagues agreed the expense of another external audit -- $250,000 or more -- would simply be too much cash.

Now at least four of those councillors -- Brian Mayes (St. Vital), Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) and Thomas Steen (Elmwood-East Kildonan) -- have changed their minds. Council approval for a police-HQ audit is all but inevitable, either later this month or in February.

While it can be fun to beat up on politicians who change their mind on a given issue, Winnipeggers should be happy the city is finally poised to place the police-HQ project under a microscope.

This is not just because this project now costs taxpayers roughly $180 million more than the Public Safety Building recladding. A thorough audit is needed to expose precisely what went wrong in the procurement process so mistakes like this will never be made again.

Contrary to the mayor's claim last fall, there are many unanswered questions about the police headquarters.

Why was the city in such a rush to buy the former Canada Post mail-processing facility in 2009? To date, the city has only said no other downtown site was available -- and somebody else might have swooped in and purchased an obsolete, 60-year-old warehouse (where the south wall turned out to be compromised by "air leaks and water penetration").

If you accept the idea the Canada Post facility was needed, why didn't the city buy the building and then take the time to develop a proper construction plan? Given the city's previous painful lessons with capital procurement, why would anyone authorize the construction of a project as complex and technical as a police headquarters without completing a design or coming up with a definitive cost?

Why were there so many changes to the city's searches for designers, construction managers and other consultants? Piecemeal explanations from the public service paint a picture of a project in disarray, beset by incomplete plans, inadequate designs and conflict between the original design firm and the project manager. Remember, the initial plans included interrogation rooms that didn't include ceilings and a garage that couldn't accommodate large police vehicles.

Why were the construction-bonding requirements for the project amended at the last minute to allow a Winnipeg firm to bid on the work? The city claimed it did this at the behest of a national surety organization -- which vehemently denies offering any such advice. Why did one of two Winnipeg firms awarded the work walk away from the job?

Why didn't the city inform council a "guaranteed maximum price" for the construction work was based on a design that was only 30 per cent complete? Why wasn't council told this price was subject to change when council approved $58 million worth of initial cost overruns?

Why wasn't city council more upset in 2011 when it was told of those overruns?

That last question has an answer: Those cost overruns were only characterized as $28 million, not $58 million. Also, 2011 was before a wacky water-park plan was proposed for The Forks or the fire-paramedic station scandal materialized. At the time, there was less cause for council to mistrust the public service.

Today, public trust in the city may very well be at an all-time low. If it takes an investigation of the police HQ to help restore that trust, the time and money would be worth it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 15, 2014 A4

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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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