Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Council approves external audit of police HQ

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WINNIPEG city council did as expected Wednesday, voting for an independent external audit of the $210-million police headquarters project.

Councillors voted 14-1 for the audit on a project where costs escalated from early estimates of $135 million to what they were told will be its final price tag of $210 million.

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But the reasons behind their vote varied: some councillors believe the civic administration is withholding information on how the project was managed; others believe an audit is necessary to demonstrate nothing improper took place.

The only opposing vote was from St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel, who insists there has been no wrongdoing and the audit is a waste of money.

Coun. John Orlikow was absent and didn't vote.

Council set a 150-day deadline for the audit results, which should make it available for the July meeting and well in advance of the Oct. 22 civic election.

The vote was a reversal of a similar call for an audit in November, which was narrowly defeated by a 9-7 vote when Mayor Sam Katz and members of his executive policy committee (EPC) voted as a block against the audit, along with councillors Devi Sharma and Thomas Steen.

But the pivotal moment for the audit came two weeks ago, when EPC members Jeff Browaty and Brian Mayes, prompted by public pressure, said they would support it -- triggering what appeared to be an EPC shift on the issue.

"This whole project cost far more than what we were told," in 2009, Coun. Jeff Browaty said, as he explained Wednesday why he was supporting the motion. "To us, this project was presented as well thought out, well-reasoned -- we had every good reason to believe the numbers we were told (in 2009) were somewhere in the ballpark that we were told.

"As a taxpayer, I'm angry the way this whole process went," Browaty said. "I think an audit is the right choice... We deserve a full explanation of why this project went on the way it did, going back all the way to square one."

Katz said he was supporting the audit but insisted the cost overrun of the project at the former Canada Post building on Graham Avenue is only $17.2 million, not $75 million, explaining earlier cost figures were only estimates and should not have been used as the financial starting point for the project.

Swandel, also a member of EPC, said the cost increases were the result of necessary design changes, adding councillors lack the political courage to defend the administration.

"It's so clear to see what happened it befuddles me that so many people can stand up and say there is something wrong here," Swandel said.

Coun. Paula Havixbeck, a longtime advocate of the audit, said congratulations should be offered to the six councillors who supported the move back in November -- Jenny Gerbasi, Scott Fielding, Ross Eadie, John Orlikow, Harvey Smith and Dan Vandal.

Havixbeck rejected suggestions an administrative report properly explained the cost overruns, adding the administration continues to withhold key information surrounding how decisions were made on the project.

Havixbeck said the administration refuses to release the minutes of the administrative steering committee that oversaw the project and detailed lists of expenses.

"It's suspicious when you can't produce dates, times and participants. That raises suspicion and concerns," Havixbeck said.

Havixbeck said she remains concerned about the project, adding the contractor hasn't signed the contract for the latest cost estimate and the administration has told her the contractor refuses to provide an accounting for the $17.2-million overrun.

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2014 B1

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