City doesn’t yet know how much it has paid out to firefighter union leader

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City of Winnipeg staff say they are unable to answer burning questions on the controversy engulfing local firefighter union leader Alex Forrest.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/01/2018 (1724 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

City of Winnipeg staff say they are unable to answer burning questions on the controversy engulfing local firefighter union leader Alex Forrest.

While a spokesman confirmed Tuesday that prior to March 2014 the city was paying 100 per cent of Forrest’s six-figure union salary, with no reimbursement from the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, he was unable to say when that arrangement began — citing an inability to find a written copy of the agreement.

As such, the city has not yet determined how much money it has been on the hook for since Forrest became president of the UFFW in 1997.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman

Since March 2014, the city has been paying 60 per cent of Forrest’s salary — including benefits and pension payments — even though he’s been a full-time union employee for 20 years. (Other unions representing City of Winnipeg employees reimburse taxpayers for their presidents’ salaries.)

The city also found itself unable to answer questions surrounding the UFFW-organized visit of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to an Osborne Village fire hall last July. The fire hall was effectively shut down for two hours to facilitate the event without senior city officials or the fire chief knowing about it, a city spokesman said.

A City of Winnipeg investigation into the matter revealed two of the station’s fire trucks were taken out of service for the two-hour visit — meaning they were unable to respond to emergency calls. While one of the trucks may have been out of service for maintenance, there is no explanation for why the other was not active that day, the spokesman said. During Trudeau’s visit, four calls came in that normally would have been responded to by the fire hall, but instead had to be dispatched elsewhere, the city said.

At a Tuesday news conference, Mayor Brian Bowman expressed concern over both situations.

“I can’t explain the deal (city paying Forrest’s salary). I was surprised when I learned about this deal… I don’t like it. I’d like it to be scrapped. The appropriate time to negotiate that is in the next round of agreements,” Bowman said.

UFFW.CA Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits with firefighters in July 2017.

When asked if he thought Forrest was in a conflict of interest — given he’s collecting a paycheck from Winnipeg taxpayers while potentially negotiating against their interests at the bargaining table — Bowman side-stepped the question.

“That’s probably a question best directed to Alex Forrest. When I learned of this I was sitting in a hockey rink and almost spilled my (coffee)… Common sense would dictate there shouldn’t be such an arrangement,” he said.

“I’m not here to defend issues that defy common sense. I’m here, however, to underscore a fundamental need for more common sense in city hall.”

While Bowman admitted to being aware of Trudeau’s planned visit to the fire hall before it happened, he said he “presumed” the proper city officials had been informed and clearance had been given. Upon realizing that wasn’t the case, he said he expressed his concerns regarding Forrest’s conduct to Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief Jim Lane “shortly after the visit.”

However, in an exchange with a Free Press reporter Oct. 18, 2017, Bowman showed no concern over how the visit was organized, or that it appeared to be done by Forrest without the consent, approval or prior knowledge of the fire chief. “If any employee of the City of Winnipeg wants to invite the Prime Minister of Canada to visit a city building — that’s a good thing… If any individual wants to invite the Prime Minister to a city facility, they should be welcomed,” Bowman said at the time.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Then-Mayor Sam Katz hugs firefighters union leader Alex Forrest in 2010 following Katz' election win.

Michael Jack, Winnipeg chief corporate services officer, said administration officials are disappointed with how Forrest went about organizing the July meeting.

“What we would have liked Alex (Forrest) to have done would be to ensure our fire and paramedic executive was fully aware of the event, its details and the timing, and any resources that may have been taken out of service,” Jack said. “I think having the Prime Minister visiting a fire hall is a positive event.

“Had it been handled differently, I think we’d be talking about it as a purely positive event.”

When asked if he was concerned a non-city employee appeared to treat a city facility as his own, shutting down a fire hall without running it by the fire chief, Jack said yes — adding the city was in ongoing discussions with Forrest about the incident. “Certainly, if vehicles are being taken out of service without the direction or blessing of the fire chief, then sure we’re always going to have concerns about how we properly use those resources,” Jack said. Forrest, who holds the rank of captain in the Winnipeg fire department while on leave from the position, did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

— with files from Aldo Santinryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @rk_thorpe

UFFW.CA Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the Osborne Village fire hall in July.
Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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