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While a neighbourhood was celebrating the actions of two Wolseley residents who used handtools to clear ice and reopen a closed footbridge in Omand Park, City of Winnipeg staff were fretting behind the scenes.
Staff emails detail the public works and communications departments’ concern about what the men had done, after the city had moved to shutter the ice-encased structure bridging Omand's Creek until spring.
Crews blocked access in early December, after high waters in late November flooded the bridge and nearby paths and froze over. Not content with the city’s choice, Brad Hignell and Chris Beauvilain used spades and picks to clear the ice over the course of a mid-December Saturday morning.
"Actions of the citizens to remove signing and barricades and ice is reckless and should be dealt with," bridge planning and operations engineer Darren Burmey emailed communications staff the following Monday. "And they have not recognized slip hazards nor could of know (sic) the bridge was not closed for structural reasons."
The documents, which were obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation through a freedom of information request, include an early media statement drafted by city staff, which describes the residents' work as showing disregard for public safety, process and municipal bylaws.
"What we have now is a situation where residents are being heralded for taking matters into their own hands; in reality, the residents’ actions caused more risk than existed in the first place," the draft statement said.
Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said frustration expressed by staff could have been avoided if the city responded to the closure proactively.
"Just witnessing how much consternation there was about the fact that people were taking matters into their own hands, rather than actually dealing with the problem, I think is a classic frustration that people often have with governments," Wudrick said Wednesday.
"We don’t want to encourage vigilantism; there are real risks sometimes," he said. "But the city’s whole rationale for not dealing with it was that it couldn’t be done, and yet, these people, by doing it, proved them wrong."
Documents show in the days leading up to the ice-clearing, Burmey informed area Coun. Cindy Gilroy (Daniel McIntyre) reopening the footbridge would require a "big effort."
In response to inquiries by the Free Press at the time, city parks staff doubled down on the reasons for the bridge being closed throughout the winter.
Parks staff told the communications department there is "no easy way" to remove the ice without doing further damage, and the best action would be "to let nature take its course."
After the bridge was cleared by the two men using picks and shovels, the parks department sent crews to remove thick, jagged and uneven ice left behind on the pathways.
"This created an incredibly hazardous situation for those using the citizen-cleared bridge and forced us into action," a spokesman for the City of Winnipeg said in a statement to the Free Press.
"Crews ultimately did clear the pathways with bobcats (loaders); however, the operation was risky and was only undertaken in an attempt to mitigate the risk of injury on the embankments."
The spokesman also said the city is not pursuing any citations against the residents, "at this time."
When governments aren't forthcoming about how they plan to address citizen concerns, officials shouldn't be shocked when residents take matters into their own hands, Wudrick said.
"If people are presented with an obstacle that they normally count on government to deal with and the government doesn’t deal with, it’s not surprising they would try to fix it themselves," he said.
"It seems no one was hurt, it seems the bridge wasn’t damaged — so clearly, their initial assessment was wrong."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.