Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mayor's indifference is troubling

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Mayor Sam Katz seems remarkably untroubled by the fact a deputy fire chief negotiated a multimillion-dollar land deal with a Winnipeg-based real estate giant, a boondoggle that has upset just about every member of council.

Reid Douglas, who has since been promoted to chief, traded three city-owned properties to Shindico in return for an apparently valuable property on Taylor Avenue, where the city has built a new fire station.

Mr. Douglas was somehow able to do all this even though the properties, including two with aging firehalls, had not been declared surplus by city council and without any discussions with the local councillor or others who had an interest in some of the disposed civic properties.

It's an understatement to say process wasn't followed, yet Mr. Katz remains untroubled by this series of unfortunate events.

He would only concede that communications could have been better, but otherwise he didn't think there was much to get upset about.

Everyone knew, Mr. Katz says, the two firehalls were to be closed, and land was needed for a new one. The mayor also says it's premature to criticize the deal until a civic report on the land swap determines if the city received a good deal or not.

The land exchange may well be a good deal for the city, but that's not the point.

The real question is how was a deputy fire chief able to sell land under the nose of city councillors and apparently with the help of civic staff who weren't aware the land was not even ready for sale legally? If council's approval is still needed, then how did we get this far -- a new firehall has already been built on land the city acquired from Shindico -- without it?

It's also unclear how Shindico was able to list at least one of the city properties. Details on whether the titles of any of the properties were transferred are sketchy, and even the legal status of the land is still the subject of confusion.

Fortunately, every member of council who has spoken on the issue has expressed deep concern about the process and they are determined to find out what happened.

The whole affair could turn out to be nothing but a comedy of errors, but it's a comedy the city does not want to repeat.

The system only works if taxpayers know the civil service is diligent and conscientious in managing important files, but ad hoc arrangements like the land-swap fiasco undermine that trust and erode confidence in the system. That's another reason why the report on the unorthodox deal must be thorough, public and transparent.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2012 A10

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