As a result of public pressure, if not the gnawing of their consciences, Mayor Sam Katz and a majority of councillors are now in favour of an external audit into Winnipeg's downtown police headquarters.
In and of itself, this is a good thing. Despite assurances to the contrary by St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel, there remain too many unanswered questions about the $210-million purchase and renovation of the former Canada Post building.
Next week, city council will almost certainly vote in favour of commissioning such an audit. The problem is the plan approved by council's executive policy committee on Wednesday calls for this audit to be completed within six months.
This time frame is problematic for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is it would almost certainly take more than six months to get the job done properly.
There is no quick and dirty way to examine the intricacies of a major capital project initially envisioned almost six years ago, when the refurbishment of the Public Safety Building was placed on hold and city officials started kicking the tires at the Canada Post building. Given what's already known about the police HQ project, it will be difficult for any team of external auditors to pursue every avenue of investigation during a puny, six-month window.
To list but a few red flags associated with the project, there's the poorly explained rationale for purchasing the Canada Post building, the rush to begin renovations before a design was completed, last-minute changes to contract-award criteria, a "guaranteed maximum price" that was neither guaranteed nor maximum, a lack of disclosure to council, the mysterious departure of one of two main construction firms and $75 million worth of cost increases over and above the initial budget.
If city council is serious about placing the entire project under a microscope, removing the deadline would be wise. It took one team of auditors at Ernest & Young almost a year to complete an external review of Winnipeg's fire-paramedic station replacement program. It's taken more than 15 months, to date, for a separate team to conduct an audit of major city real estate transactions.
What lobbyists arguing in favour of a quick audit don't appear to understand is the actual investigation can only commence after the city auditor comes up with a set of search criteria for an external auditing firm, issues a request for proposals and then selects a successful applicant. This can take almost a month.
And once the work is concluded, it must undergo a quality-control process that involves consultations with the people and organizations most affected by the audit. This can take another month or more.
What that means is a six-month police HQ audit would at worst amount to a whitewash of an investigation. At best, it will not be as thorough an investigation as the citizens of Winnipeg deserve.
"It's going to be a challenge, so we'll have to manage the scope and go from there," city auditor Brian Whiteside said Wednesday, acknowledging the tight timeline council may impose.
This time frame would also lead the city auditor's office to postpone other audits planned for 2014. As a result of Wednesday's vote, the only audits in the pipe right now are the external real estate audit and internal audits of the 311 call centre and the over-budget Waverley West roads project.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500 and Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck all support the short timeline because they believe some of the work has already been undertaken by the real estate audit. That's merely wishful thinking, as nobody except Ernst & Young knows how far the firm has looked into the police HQ purchase.
The other problem with ensuring a police HQ audit is out this summer is it would land in the middle of a municipal election campaign. While it would be interesting to see incumbent candidates squirm, it's unwise to politicize what may turn out to be a very serious report.
Another nasty audit report could serve as the final nail in Sam Katz's re-election coffin.
It could also be used against mayoral candidate Gord Steeves, the former St. Vital councillor who served as protection committee chairman when the police HQ project started.
Needless to say, audits should not be wielded as political weapons.
To prevent the police HQ audit from being watered down and misused, it's better for council to allow the city auditor to determine the time frame for the investigation.