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City admits there may be no paper trail of UFFW president's salary deal prior to 2014

'I don't know if it was done as a handshake or written on the back of a napkin'

BORIS MINKEVICH/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The City of Winnipeg has paid firefighter union president Alex Forrest (centre) $1.2 million over a 17-year period.</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The City of Winnipeg has paid firefighter union president Alex Forrest (centre) $1.2 million over a 17-year period.

The City of Winnipeg believes it may have paid local firefighters union president Alex Forrest nearly $1.2 million in salary, plus benefits and pension payments, over a 17-year period – without a written agreement between the two parties.

"We are acknowledging the possibility that any arrangement made directly with Alex (Forrest) in past years could have been done verbally. It's quite conceivable. We have been searching for some written evidence and have still been unable to locate any," Michael Jack, the city's chief corporate services officer, said in an interview Thursday. "We know it began at some point. I don't have direct knowledge of how that agreement would have been arrived at. I don't know if it was done as a handshake or written on the back of a napkin. But I can certainly confirm in 2017 any such arrangement done verbally would simply be unacceptable."

Based on the best evidence at the city's disposal, Jack said it appears the city paid 100 per cent of Forrest's salary (plus benefits and pension) from the time he became president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg (UFFW) in 1997, until March 2014, when the city renegotiated the deal down to 60 per cent.

Why there is no paper trail for the agreement, including why the city agreed to pay Forrest's salary in the first place, remains unclear. Other unions representing City of Winnipeg employees reimburse taxpayers for their presidents' salaries.

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The City of Winnipeg believes it may have paid local firefighters union president Alex Forrest nearly $1.2 million in salary, plus benefits and pension payments, over a 17-year period – without a written agreement between the two parties.

"We are acknowledging the possibility that any arrangement made directly with Alex (Forrest) in past years could have been done verbally. It's quite conceivable. We have been searching for some written evidence and have still been unable to locate any," Michael Jack, the city's chief corporate services officer, said in an interview Thursday. "We know it began at some point. I don't have direct knowledge of how that agreement would have been arrived at. I don't know if it was done as a handshake or written on the back of a napkin. But I can certainly confirm in 2017 any such arrangement done verbally would simply be unacceptable."

Based on the best evidence at the city's disposal, Jack said it appears the city paid 100 per cent of Forrest's salary (plus benefits and pension) from the time he became president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg (UFFW) in 1997, until March 2014, when the city renegotiated the deal down to 60 per cent.

Why there is no paper trail for the agreement, including why the city agreed to pay Forrest's salary in the first place, remains unclear. Other unions representing City of Winnipeg employees reimburse taxpayers for their presidents' salaries.

Andy Burgess, UFFW president prior to Forrest, said Thursday when he held the position, the city did not pay his salary.

According to City of Winnipeg compensation disclosure agreements, the city paid Forrest nearly $1.2 million in salary between 1997 and 2013. In March 2014, the first known written agreement between the two parties was drawn up, which specified the city would cover 60 per cent of Forrest's salary.

Between 2014 and 2016, the city paid another $193,466 in salary. Assuming Forrest retains his position as union president until the next round of collective bargaining, and using his current salary as a baseline (factoring in no pay cuts or raises), the city will pay another $349,025 in salary between 2017 and 2021.That would mean from 1997 to 2021, Winnipeg taxpayers will have been on the hook for roughly $1.7 million in salary alone for a union president.

During an interview with the Free Press, Jack confirmed the city keeps records of annual reimbursement payments for union president salaries.

It was pointed out the city wouldn't need to find a written agreement to figure out how much it had paid Forrest in salary between 1997 to 2014, given it could subtract whatever payments the UFFW made to the city from Forrest's salary listed in the annual compensation disclosures. "Your math is correct on that one. We certainly have evidence of being reimbursed since the letter (March 2014). We could look into that. No one has yet asked that question. Our information seems to indicate that there were no reimbursements (between 1997 and 2013)," Jack said. According to Coun. Jeff Browaty, and former city councillor Paula Havixbeck, it was known by council in March 2014 the city had been paying Forrest's salary.

Couns. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), Russ Wyatt (Transcona), Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas), John Orlikow (River Heights-Fort Garry), Ross Eadie (Mynarski), Devi Sharma (Old Kildonan) and Brian Mayes (St. Vital) were all on council when the deal was renegotiated in early 2014. (A civic shakeup came in October 2014, which included then-political rookie Brian Bowman being elected mayor.)It remains unclear why none of the councillors flagged the issue with Forrest's salary when the latest round of collective bargaining took place in April 2017. Browaty, Mayes and Pagtakhan also served on the mayor's executive policy committee when the negotiation mandate for the last round of collective bargaining with the UFFW was first discussed in the summer of 2016. (Browaty was dismissed from the EPC in December of 2016, before the deal was finalized.)In September 2014, then-mayoral candidate Havixbeck picked a fight with the city's union leaders, claiming the salaries for presidents of four civic unions were paid by taxpayers. It appears Havixbeck was only partially correct, as there's no evidence any other civic union president — aside from Forrest — has had their salary paid by the city. In an interview with the Free Press at the time, Forrest claimed Havixbeck's accusation was both false and had been prompted by his union's decision to endorse Judy Wasylycia-Leis for mayor.

On Thursday, Forrest declined comment on questions related to his salary. He also said he could not speak to Havixbeck's 2014 accusation — or his response to it — as he could not recall the context of the situation.

When asked what he'd say to taxpayers upset the city doesn't know why — or how much — they've paid a union leader over the past 20 years, Jack said: "I do really share the surprise others are expressing about not being able to locate a written agreement.

"But I think Winnipeggers can rest assured that we've taken steps to address that not happening today. I think we've come a long way as a city over the last couple of decades. Not only in terms of transparency, but also the diligence with which we approach our collective bargaining, our record keeping and how we communicate that to the public."—- with files from Aldo Santin

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

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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History

Updated on Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 8:46 PM CST: fixes typo

January 12, 2018 at 10:50 AM: corrects number of years in cutline

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