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Changes of heart on HQ audit

Four councillors now agree review of project needed

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The Southwest corner of the newly renovated building at Smith Street and St. Mary Avenue, formerly the Canada Post offices and now the Headquarters for the Winnipeg Police Service. 140114 - January 14, 2014 MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

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The Southwest corner of the newly renovated building at Smith Street and St. Mary Avenue, formerly the Canada Post offices and now the Headquarters for the Winnipeg Police Service. 140114 - January 14, 2014 MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Photo Store

Several members of council are dropping their opposition to an audit of the $210-million police headquarters, ensuring a review of the project will occur.

The first councillors to make the switch Tuesday were Jeff Browaty and Brian Mayes, members of Mayor Sam Katz's executive policy committee, who said they were under so much public pressure they couldn't get any work done.

Thomas Steen and Devi Sharma later said they'd also switch, and even Katz said he's willing to consider another vote.

Browaty (North Kildonan) and Mayes (St. Vital) called an impromptu news conference outside Katz's office to announce they were switching their votes.

"Whether it was at the Christmas table, or friends and family, or at Timmie's or at the grocery store, it was the top-of-mind item," Browaty said. "The issue people seemed to have their mind around was the whole question of something not being correct there. Doing this audit will get to the bottom of it all."

"It's become a distraction -- people are emailing us constantly," Mayes said. "There's a lot of other good work we're doing that's not getting attention, so let's deal with the audit and move on."

Browaty and Mayes were among nine members of council who blocked a motion for the audit at the November council meeting.

Since then, Coun. Paula Havixbeck (Tuxedo-Charleswood) has led a public campaign to keep the issue alive. On Monday, representatives from the Winnipeg Labour Council and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation joined forces to support an audit and called on the public to put pressure on the nine councillors who voted against the motion.

The cost of the police headquarters project increased to $210 million from $135 million in 2009. Council was told in 2009 the $135-million cost was a guaranteed maximum price, but that was misleading, as the figure was based on only 30 per cent of the plans being completed.

Most of the cost increases were the result of key items omitted from the initial budget that were later added back in, including furniture and mechanical and electrical upgrades, plus necessary security upgrades.

Opponents of the audit, including Katz and Coun. Russ Wyatt, said nothing new would be learned from the move. Katz repeatedly stressed the project was built for considerably less money, on a square-foot basis, than other comparable facilities across North America.

However, no members of senior administration have been publicly questioned as to why they remained silent as the costs escalated and why the 2009 maximum price wasn't likely to be a realistic figure.

Katz said he's willing to reconsider the issue after meeting with Coun. Jenny Gerbasi, adding he expects a new motion calling for an audit will be presented at the Jan. 29 council meeting or at an EPC meeting before then.

"I told Jenny, 'I am fully open-minded to the audit... let's see if we can draft a motion and go from there,' " Katz said, adding he's not prepared to say he would support the motion. "It's premature to say what, if anything, will happen."

The Free Press canvassed the six other members of council who opposed the audit: Steen and Sharma said they would now support it. Grant Nordman (St. Charles) said he'll make his decision when he sees a motion at council.

Couns. Russ Wyatt, Justin Swandel and Mike Pagtakhan did not respond.

Sharma said she, too, has been overwhelmed with calls and emails from constituents urging her to switch her vote.

"The public want a thorough report on what happened and I can't blame them," Sharma (Old Kildonan) said.

Havixbeck and Gerbasi, who together originally brought the motion in November calling for the audit, said they were pleased enough of the others had changed their minds, adding they are confident a similar motion will easily pass.

Activists Dave Sauer, president of the Winnipeg Labour Council, and Colin Craig, Prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said they credited Winnipeg citizens with forcing the councillors to change their vote on the audit.

Browaty said he doesn't believe an audit will be expensive but it will probably take 12 to 14 months to complete.

aldo.santin@ freepress.mb.ca

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

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