Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Busting the city's deals

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The city's decision to cancel two contracts with real estate giant Shindico comes with several risks, including the possibility the taxpayer will end up with the short end of the stick, but some councillors are obviously determined to provide closure on a debate that has been wearing away public confidence in the system.

Coun. John Orlikow has a point in saying the city's property committee acted like a bully with its arbitrary and aggressive decisions, particularly without more information that might indicate whether the cancelled deals were truly unjust, or merely examples of sloppy process.

There is a chance the pending audits into the real estate deals may show the exchange of three city-owned parcels of land for one owned by Shindico, where a fire hall has been built on land the city does not own, was a good deal for both parties, if flawed in the way it was executed. There is also a chance Shindico was the best option for managing the old post office tower on Graham Avenue until the city is ready to sell it, even if the request for qualifications was allegedly worded in terms too vague even for the real estate industry.

If all this turns out to be true, then the taxpayer could be the loser, but only if money is the only consideration in this entire unholy mess. Unfortunately, both for the city and Shindico, the cancer that has been sapping public confidence in city hall, and Mayor Sam Katz in particular, needed aggressive intervention.

To council's discredit, however, these unprecedented steps would not have been necessary if the city's administrative and political arms had been more determined to answer all the outstanding questions on these files.

Instead, Mayor Katz and councillors sat on their hands for too long, while the administration made only minimal effort to answer questions that had raised suspicions about the integrity of the system.

In the absence of clear information, the property committee decided to abruptly cancel two contracts with Shindico in the hope a clear slate will be seen as an act of good faith in the face of sustained criticism. If the deals weren't above board, well, at least they are off the table now.

Council knew in 2010 the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service was managing the fire-hall building plan, but it never seemed concerned that the city's real estate division wasn't in the lead. In fact, the leader of the building program was deputy fire chief Reid Douglas, who has since been removed from the file amid suggestions he should never have been managing it in the first place.

The city's protection committee also knew trading city-owned land for new land was a possibility. The problem, of course, is that the final proposal never came back for political approval.

The $15-million fire-hall replacement plan was supposed to involve funding from all three levels of government, but that fact also seems to have fallen off the file. And at some point over the last two years, the complete package was broken into four separate deals, ensuring none would meet the threshold for council approval.

Chief Reid says he wanted to save the bureaucracy time, but that answer and others on why a fire hall was expanded in size without council approval have failed to satisfy the test for public confidence.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2012 A12

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