Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vote first, ask questions later?

Vandal has some explaining to do on water park

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Do you know why reporters still hang on every word politicians utter? Fact is, you just never know exactly what they're going to say.

Take Coun. Dan Vandal, for example. A man who once made a bid to be mayor of this city, Vandal last week moved a motion to delay a final vote on a plan to give $7 million to a private hotelier to build a water park and hotel on Parcel Four, city-owned land near The Forks market and park, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and Mayor Sam Katz's baseball park.

After council approved the motion, Vandal was the first member of council to face reporters. And boy, did he have some explaining to do.

One week earlier, Vandal, as a member of the powerful executive policy committee, approved the water park. EPC decisions, however, require a final vote before all of city council. In the week between votes, Winnipeggers used email, voice mail and social media to rise up in force and let councillors know they didn't like the deal.

Responding to that uprising, Vandal introduced a motion to defer. It would be unfair to accuse Vandal of flip-flopping. In fact, he only responded to the citizens, and that's not a bad thing. However, it was why Vandal wanted a delay that raises some concerns.

Vandal doesn't oppose the project, per se. However, on behalf of the citizens, he did want a time out to get from the developer a complete business plan, architectural drawings of both the hotel and water park, and specifics on a complex "accessibility agreement" that will see the city obtain discounted admissions to the water park for less-privileged Winnipeggers.

When you consider the matter at hand, those are all unremarkable questions. However, what's remarkable is that Vandal did not know any of these things, and like the other members of EPC, apparently did not need to know them in order to give their approval at EPC on April 18. (Here's where the "did not see that coming" stuff comes.) After council voted to delay a final vote on the water park, Vandal was unrepentant, saying he did not need to know that information before he voted because he was "confident in the process." Vandal said the due diligence by city staff in the negotiations with Canalta following a council vote approving the deal would take care of all the niggling details. Why Vandal has confidence in that process boggles the mind.

In theory, the city does hold a last right of refusal on things such as design. However, this is a city that has consistently rolled over for developers like a love-starved puppy that needs its belly rubbed. We have hideous, poorly conceived and executed developments all over the city as evidence of our willingness to submit to developers' whims.

The odd thing is that prior to the EPC vote, Vandal said he was concerned he did not know enough about the Canalta plan. And then he voted in favour. And now he says he was never worried, because he believes in a process that has rarely, if ever, done what Vandal thinks it has done. It's the vote yes now, ask questions later approach to policy.

Here's a news flash: Having all the details needed to make an informed decision to sell a valuable city asset and then give away $7 million of taxpayer money IS part of the process.

There are so many holes right now in the water park plan, it's hard to know exactly where to start asking questions. What style of building will Canalta erect? Is 50,000 square feet, the size of the proposed water park, big enough to be the attraction we were promised? If not, then is Parcel Four also too small to host this kind of project? And then, there is the matter of the accessibility agreement.

The city has promised it will have access to $750,000 annually in admissions to the water park. But we don't know how many admissions that translates to because we don't know how much it will cost to use the water park. We also don't know how the city will identify beneficiaries of the free admissions. Will there be an income test? Or will the city ask outside groups to make the decision? Nobody knows.

Council, or at least a majority of council, has developed an awful habit of approving projects or proposals without knowing exactly what it is approving. There are numerous examples in recent history of controversial issues coming forward with the bare minimum of details and a complete absence of due diligence. The members of EPC, hand-selected by Katz, have never met a sketchy, poorly vetted, inadequately investigated proposal they couldn't get behind. Once beyond EPC, the rest of council, which we imagine contains a goodly number of EPC wannabes, seems unable to utter the words "no." And so it goes, on and on, until most council votes are predetermined charades.

Kudos to Vandal for stopping the water park vote and asking for more information. Let's hope that he, and other councillors, learn from this experience. Specifically, that the time to ask questions is before, not after.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2012 B2

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