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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Call inquiry into city hall's rotten, fetid mess

We deserve answers after five years of scandals

Posted: 07/19/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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In the depths of a Winnipeg summer, citizens may be more concerned about whether their barbecues have enough propane than burning questions about the thick, black smoke emanating from a smouldering city hall.

This is unfortunate. In the dying months of the most ignominious council term since 1874, when Winnipeg chose a violent racist to be mayor, there's an opportunity to shine a light on the severe mismanagement and questionable decision-making that botched major projects, infected real estate deals and tarnished the reputation of the city.

The past five years have been a horror story. A brief list of some of the troublesome events makes the description "incompetence" seem insufficient.

Senior administrators were promoted without required qualifications. Property officials swapped away the Parker land without assessing or inspecting it. The city bought the former Canada Post building for $29.25 million without getting an independent appraisal.

Property officials tried to sell Parcel Four, one of downtown's last plots of land, to a single buyer without allowing anyone else to bid for it. The fire-paramedic service built a station on land the city doesn't own -- and then tried to obtain it for three properties that hadn't been declared surplus.

Fire-paramedic and police officials were handed real estate and project-management duties.

Favouritism appears to have been shown to a handful of private companies.

Policies were ignored and sometimes subverted outright in an effort to just get things done. Recommendations from earlier audits were ignored.

Officials lied, both actively and through omission, when questioned about some of the problems. Mayor Sam Katz denied any and all knowledge of anything that transpired -- including his own lobbying efforts to help his close friend Phil Sheegl, become the City of Winnipeg's chief administrative officer.

This information came to light through the efforts of the city auditor, the persistence of a handful of councillors, the courage of whistleblowers and the work of the media.

After it came to light, some members of council ignored it. A few tried to shoot the messengers. Some will face an angry electorate this fall, while others, such as Katz, have seen the writing on the wall and won't contest another election.

But that won't help remove the rot of dysfunction, denial and cowardice from the offices in the administration building at city hall. Winnipeg won't be able to move on until officials who looked the other way and failed to speak up when superiors or colleagues were subverting policy leave this public service.

The majority of people employed by the city are decent, honourable, committed and hard-working. But some of the best in planning, real estate, public works and elsewhere quit during recent years.

Conversely, several who remain in important positions are in denial, insisting they did nothing wrong under the letter of the law. In the wake of three damning audits, nobody buys their explanations.

Cowardice is one thing. Covering one's own behind when you had the chance to speak up earlier is pathetic.

Now, with blood in the water, it's not just bureaucrats and councillors who should fear for their jobs.

Most of the mayoral candidates have been silent on the mess as they flit between cheesy photo ops while offering platitudes about changing the culture at city hall.

Premier Greg Selinger hasn't uttered a word about Winnipeg's troubles in recent weeks, abdicating his responsibility. Opposition Leader Brian Pallister has been almost as silent, save for a single, self-serving statement about the province setting a poor example for the city.

Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis also hasn't weighed in, though he certainly monitors media reports about his new $210-million headquarters, a project the city likely didn't even need.

Winnipeggers and Manitobans deserve better.

They deserve courage, not just from elected officials and public servants, but from community leaders who know this city will suffer for decades without a full examination of what's transpired.

The audits have been limited in scope. Reporters don't have the power to subpoena financial transactions or phone records. No one can compel reluctant parties to speak.

Only an inquiry or some other broad, official examination can close the book on this ugly chapter in our city's history.

Even if what we've already learned is the worst of what has happened, that's something citizens deserve to know.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 19, 2014 0

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