Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rebuilding trust at city hall

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The spectacle on display at city hall this week was an embarrassing display of blame-casting and deflection of responsibility. The cliché of politicians "passing the buck" was never more appropriately in play.

City council voted to send an audit of real estate transactions to the provincial Department of Justice, but what could come of such a move is purely speculation. The move is symptomatic of the fractious relationship between councillors and the city's senior administration.

That is no small matter. In fact, some could observe that the working relationship between the administration and council has been poisoned to a debilitating degree. That cannot persist if the goal is to implement trustworthy and rigorous decision-making, backed by genuine accountability.

The EY audit revealed to councillors and Winnipeggers alike that some land deals were rushed, some developers got preferential treatment and true valuations of property were not shared with council. Coun. Justin Swandel saw this as the price of getting the job done in a timely fashion, and insisted it produced value for the city. That is a distorted, irresponsible interpretation and part of the reason why Winnipeggers have an abiding distrust of deal-making at city hall.

The auditors have told council the paper trail and documents in the property transactions they closely studied revealed unacceptable practices, but also that they found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The team included a fraud expert. There was no suggestion the auditors were obstructed in their work, in fact, they believed the picture was clear to them despite not having interviewed key actors in the transactions.

The referral to the Department of Justice then will merely review the evidence laid out by EY's work. Proving administrators failed, criminally, in their duty to the city and councillors demands meeting a very high test for such dereliction of duty. The question councillors want answered is whether there might have been breaches of the City of Winnipeg charter or other municipal statutes.

The referral may give councillors, simmering still from the lack of information that should have flowed to them, some comfort. But it will not make repairing the relationship with the administration any easier.

More useful ground to plow can be found within the audit's recommendations, to tighten up the rules and procedures by introducing protocol those in administration -- the property department and the chief administrative officer, among others -- must follow in real estate transactions or public works. That would include the necessity to refer contracts to the city's legal advisers and to refer to council all valuations of land, rather than just those that meet a narrowed use for properties under discussion.

City council's decision to follow up the audit by hiring an external agency to monitor the administration's implementation of the recommendations might give the councillors some faith in the integrity of the work. A better route would be to task the city auditor's office to periodically review, and report on, real estate transactions to ensure they adhere to proper management practices and the new rules. This is in line with council's decision there ought to be a permanent office to track real estate matters.

The comments by Coun. Swandel, the deputy mayor, show there is a wide variation of views on how much rigour city council expects of its administrators. Yet the trust of Winnipeg taxpayers has been sorely taxed by this and past audits of property deals that have gone sideways, including the way council authority was purposely skirted in the contract to build four new fire halls and then how councillors were kept in the dark about rising costs on the remake of the old Canada Post building for the police department.

The provincial Department of Justice's opinion, whatever its view, will not rebuild that trust. Councillors, many of whom might return following the election this fall, will have to do that themselves.

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 July 12, 2014 A16

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