The anonymous citizens’ group that has made allegations against the city’s building inspectors reached out to Mayor Brian Bowman this week and offered him its video surveillance evidence and all accompanying reports from a private investigation.
Bowman told reporters Thursday that he was contacted on the phone Monday by a lawyer representing the group who offered the surveillance evidence but only on condition that the material not be provided to the city officials conducting the internal probe.
Bowman said he couldn’t accept the evidence under those conditions and renewed his suggestion, made publicly several times before, that the group contact the provincial ombudsman.
Lawyer John Prystanski confirmed he has been engaged by the group and contacted Bowman. But Prystanski said the offer was made on the condition the group had previously made, that the city hold a public inquiry.
The group hired a local private investigation firm to monitor the activities of 17 building inspectors in the property, planning and development department earlier this year. The results of the 28-day investigation, published by the Free Press earlier this month, included notes, video and photos of the inspectors taking long lunches and extended coffee breaks, and running personal errands and shopping trips.
Of the 17 inspectors monitored, only one seemed to be putting in a full day’s work. The rest, investigators concluded, were averaging about three hours of work in a typical day.
Prystanski, a former city councillor, said the group members don’t trust the civic administration and believe key evidence will be ignored unless it’s presented in a public forum.
Prystanski said the group’s concern with the department extends beyond the workday habits of a few building inspectors, adding members believe the problems are deeply ingrained and widespread, and include bias against certain builders and developers, allegations that plan approvals are arbitrarily withheld and unnecessary demands made for changes to professionally created drawings."
"The only way to resolve these problems is to get the City of Winnipeg to call a public inquiry," he said.
Prystanski said he doesn’t believe the provincial ombudsman has the authority to impose any changes on the city’s planning, property and development department, which is what the citizens’ group wants.
"The City of Winnipeg can do what they want," Prystanski said. "If they choose to have a public inquiry, they can approach the Province of Manitoba, they can themselves hold an inquiry. They can set the rules of the inquiry, they can do anything they want. In my opinion there is no restrictions."
Prystanski said the city reached out to the group through its private investigator, offering to compensate members for the $18,000 cost of the investigation, but only if the material is turned over to city hall.
Bowman and other city officials say only the province can call an inquiry and have repeatedly asked the group to provide its evidence to city staff conducting the internal probe or to reach out to the ombudsman.
Earlier Thursday, CAO Doug McNeil confirmed that the internal probe has completed its first round of employee interviews and the investigation team is analyzing the information and preparing for another, more detailed, set of interviews.
John Kiernan, director of the planning, property and development department, told reporters Tuesday that the investigation team isn’t satisfied with some of the answers provided by city staff.
"There does seem to be reasonable cause for further investigation, absolutely," he said. "Not all of the observations have we received sufficient answers for."
Prystanski said the group is considering its options and may co-operate with the proposed provincial review that Premier Brian Pallister announced last week, which would examine the permits and planning procedures at city hall and other municipalities and provincial agencies, including Manitoba Hydro and the Office of the Fire Commissioner.
Prystanski said an inquiry doesn’t need the authority of the Evidence Act, as city officials maintain, adding the city has access to all the evidence it needs to resolve what he said are long-standing problems with the planning, property and development department.
"They have access to everything and anything that we need to fix the department," Prystanski said, referring to employee emails and work logs.
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.