Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Electorate deserves better than these guys

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Two hundred years ago, an ultra-conservative French lawyer who despised democracy came up with a line that remains a popular means of putting down the electorate.

"In a democracy, people get the leaders they deserve," sneered Joseph de Maistre, a monarchist nut-job of a philosopher who believed ordinary people should knuckle under to the wealthy and powerful.

You won't find many people who agree with de Maistre today. But you will find cynics who believe all voters are idiots who wilfully blind themselves to the failures of people in power.

The thing is, nobody deserves bad government. When ordinary people vote, they do so in good faith, believing politicians place the best interests of the public ahead of any other consideration.

This doesn't make voters idiots. It simply means voters are willing to hold up their end of the social contract known as democratic government. In the City of Winnipeg, it's now safe to say some of our elected officials and public servants have not been willing to hold up their end of the deal.

We have a municipal government we do not deserve.

Over the past 14 months, senior city officials have told outright lies to the public about Winnipeg's fire-paramedic station replacement program. Ernst & Young's external review of the badly managed, over-budget and unfairly tendered construction of four new fire-paramedic stations illustrates this fact in stunning and depressing detail.

In August 2012, when the fire-paramedic scandal first emerged, Mayor Sam Katz, former chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl and other officials were quick to assure the public there was nothing wrong with a project that involved a three-for-one land swap arranged by the then-deputy fire-paramedic chief, the construction of a station on privately owned land or the lack of council oversight of four separate contract awards.

"There's nothing that's been done that's untoward," Sheegl said during a remarkable press conference on the second floor of city council's administration building on Aug. 31, 2012.

"I think we followed all the procedures and policies we have," said the former CAO, who famously claimed his own oversight took place at 50,000 feet.

Sheegl, of course, was found by Ernst & Young to have conducted "the majority of project oversight, where oversight occurred."

Sitting at the same table was former fire-paramedic chief Reid Douglas, who was found by the audit to lack the expertise to handle the program and admitted as much to council and the public this week.

Also at the table was Winnipeg chief operating officer Deepak Joshi, now the city's acting CAO, whom the audit found aware of the land-swap negotiations before they concluded.

Also present was planning, property and development director Barry Thorgrimson, whose department was criticized by the audit for failing to point out the proposed land swap would benefit Shindico Realty to the tune of approximately $1 million.

Also present was city solicitor Michael Jack, whose team of lawyers was criticized by the audit for failing to advise the city against signing off on the construction of Station No. 12 on Shindico's land.

Also present was materials manager Barb D'Avignon, whose unit was criticized by the audit for advising it was OK to split up construction contracts in a manner that avoided council scrutiny.

Also present was chief financial officer Mike Ruta, who according to the audit signed off on allowing a contract award for only the foundation of Station No. 11, against city practices.

To be fair, the audit found most of these officials raised concerns at some point before August 2012, when the story broke. But they all stood beside Sheegl when he sounded the all-clear and said nothing to reporters from the Free Press and CBC Manitoba.

All, in effect if not intent, lied to the public. For example, only one day before this meeting took place, on Aug. 30, 2012, D'Avignon told Douglas in Sheegl's office Station No. 11 was under construction without a contract in place, the audit reported.

Two days before that, on Aug. 28, Katz had told the public there was no problem with the program and any criticism was premature.

Fourteen months later, this mayor told reporters -- and the public, by extension -- he had no idea why Sheegl resigned from the city, even though weeks earlier, Sheegl was shown portions of the audit and was given an opportunity to respond. Katz continues to deny he knew anything about the audit before he signed off on a severance package for Sheegl, his friend and confidante. This strains credulity to its limits.

The bottom line: Officials lied to the public. The mayor has no plausible deniability. And many other members of council are only speaking out now that they appear complacent and unengaged.

The electorate deserves better. No one in Winnipeg deserves this sort of leadership or administration.

To suggest otherwise is to despise democracy, as de Maistre did.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 24, 2013 B1

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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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