Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Council starts to step up

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Two months ago, all hell broke loose at city hall over a plan to trade three parcels of city-owned land for private land to build a fire hall. The fire station was built, but on land the city doesn't own. The pot reached boiling point when it was later revealed one of four new fire halls was over budget because someone had inexplicably decided to make it bigger without proper approval.

These revelations then revived old questions about other land deals, such as the purchase of the old post office for new police headquarters, and the lid came right off.

These are all legitimate public controversies that demand full and forthright answers, but there are many people besides the media who are in a position to ask questions.

In this case, city councillors themselves should have been leading the effort to satisfy the public's concerns. And yet it was only on Wednesday that several councillors during council's regular meeting demanded that Mayor Sam Katz explain who was responsible for ordering the expansion of a fire hall without council's knowledge.

The councillors said, correctly, that any information was better than none. The complete absence of any explanation has merely fuelled suspicion and raised the whiff of scandal.

The questions weren't asked at last month's council meeting, nor at several meetings of the protection and community services committee, which is responsible for fire halls.

Well, today they will get at least some information when a report on the fire-hall expansion is released.

And on Monday, councillors on the protection and community services committee will have an opportunity to ask questions about the report, and about other issues related to the city's fire-hall expansion program.

Mayor Katz says as far as he's concerned, councillors can ask any questions they want of city officials, who should provide answers, if they have them.

The single report and any answers on other issues that might emerge from Monday's meeting, however, will not provide the whole story on what has gone wrong within the civic administration. That question will be addressed in a pair of audits on civic real estate transactions.

There is ample evidence already of chaos, poor record-keeping, weak communication and other problems in the public administration. There are also questions about why a single company, Shindico, has received so much civic business, although the mayor is confident the answer will be simply that the firm is highly competitive, skilled and capable.

It may not be that simple, however, if it turns out only one firm meets the city's high qualifications, but that's a question for another day.

The mayor himself may not get off so easily if the main audit reveals he has used his business know-how to negotiate deals for the city, even if it resulted in saving the city money. It depends on the context, but a previous real estate audit was critical of the tendency of civic politicians to engage in deal making and negotiations.

Some basic information is starting to emerge, but it has taken too long. The hard stuff will take longer, but hopefully the audit report will reinforce the importance of a properly trained and independent civil service and of a political arm that knows its boundaries.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2012 A10

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