Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Those in know won't say why Douglas let go

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At any level of politics, there's an old adage warning against mistaking incompetence for conspiracy. Screwing up is easy. Pulling off a series of malicious moves -- let alone a single act of treachery -- is way beyond the capacity of an ordinary public servant or elected official.

The City of Winnipeg, however, appears hell-bent on doing everything in its power to arouse the suspicion of the populace. How else to explain Wednesday's dismissal of the central figure in the fire-paramedic scandal only days before a review will shed light on the entire affair?

By this time next week, or possibly the week after, Winnipeggers will know what the consulting firm Ernst & Young concluded after spending almost a year sifting through the ashes of a heavily criticized plan to build four new fire-paramedic stations.

The $17.8-million program, which began with a $15.3-million budget, raised the ire of city council last fall, primarily because one of those fire halls was built on land the city doesn't own but planned to acquire by swapping three other properties for it.

The infamous three-for-one land swap, cancelled amid a council furor, was arranged in part by Reid Douglas, who until Wednesday was chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.

The dismissal was announced via email minutes after the conclusion of Wednesday's council meeting. It came without any explanation from Winnipeg chief operating officer Deepak Joshi.

Douglas isn't the only official who may be scrutinized by the fire-paramedic review due out in October. Joshi himself was questioned last fall by councillors, as was Winnipeg chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl, who once famously proclaimed he was only aware of the fire-paramedic station negotiations "at 50,000 feet."

Property director Barry Thorgrimson, various city real estate officials and paramedic Kristine Friesen -- the apparent project manager -- may also be scrutinized by the Ernst & Young review.

But only Douglas has left the city in what appears to be a pre-emptive firing, even though Joshi insisted the chief's departure had nothing to do with the review.

If that's the case, why was Douglas offered a departure package in late August, months after the city conducted an internal survey of office morale at fire-paramedic headquarters? It sure looks as if the city went looking for a reason to turf him beyond the scope of the fire-paramedic review.

Even if there was some other reason to get rid of the chief, why not wait until the review comes out and allow Douglas to face the music along with other city staff?

As recently as days ago, city officials were perpetuating the fiction Douglas has been on vacation for the past few weeks. Mayor Sam Katz said the chief would be back at work at the end of this month.

Now, the chief is gone, either because he did something wrong or because he did nothing more heinous than carry out the directives of his superiors. Whatever happened, Sheegl, Joshi and Katz weren't eager to talk about it Wednesday.

All they would say is it is customary for the city to refuse to disclose the reasons for making personnel moves. For example, no official explanation has been given for Taz Stuart's August departure, even though many Winnipeggers cared more about the former city entomologist than any other public servant.

But Douglas wasn't just any public servant. He was a department director with four decades of experience with the city. More importantly, he was let go mere days before we all get to see what independent, external auditors thought about the fire-paramedic station replacement program the former chief oversaw.

There isn't much room left for plausible deniability here. That's why several councillors are rightly questioning the timing of the decision to send Douglas away.

Did he take home severance pay? We'll only get to know this in July 2014, when the city publishes the list of 2013 salaries. If he did get a severance package, would it not have been wise to wait and see whether the review determined he was culpable in some way?

These are logical questions, but the mayor, Sheegl and Joshi did not answer them. They may feel justified in hiding behind the confidentiality customarily applied to personnel matters.

But after more than 13 months of fire-paramedic station shenanigans, residents of this city deserve more accountability, more transparency and a lot fewer reasons to be suspicious of government.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 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.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

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
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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