The City of Winnipeg has been paying part — and, at times, all — of Alex Forrest’s salary since he became president of the firefighters local in 1997, the union leader confirmed Wednesday.
And some claims of ignorance from the city in the matter should be taken with a grain of salt, Forrest said in an interview with the Free Press.
"I cannot believe in this day and age, when there are so many pressing issues in the City of Winnipeg, that the two issues that are work-stopping news right now are the prime minister visiting a fire hall (in July 2017) and my pay," he said. "The only reason this is coming to light is political issues, and for it to become a political issue right now is absolutely ridiculous."
While Forrest would not say how much of his salary the city paid between 1997 and 2011, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service captain confirmed it has been paying at least part of it since he became a full-time union president. (Other unions representing City of Winnipeg employees reimburse taxpayers for their presidents’ salaries.)
Forrest said the city paid 100 per cent of his salary in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, the figure was renegotiated to 60 per cent — a decision approved by council.
In all negotiations between the city and its unions, council directs the chief administrative officer and chief financial officer on all negotiation mandates, he said. According to Forrest, that means — at the very least — the six current councillors who were also members of city council in March 2014 would have been aware of the existence of the deal.
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) and Ross Eadie (Mynarski) were all on city 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.)
"If they’re saying they weren’t aware of it, then they don’t understand collective bargaining. I can tell you the firefighters’ collective bargaining agreement is one of the highest-priority items on the city’s ticket. We cannot move on any issue until it’s approved by city council," Forrest said.
While it remains unclear how much Winnipeg taxpayers were on the hook for prior to 2012, since then the city’s paid Forrest roughly $450,000 in salary, plus benefits and pension payments.
Using his 2016 salary as a baseline, and assuming no raises or pay cuts, the city will have to shell out an additional $280,000 (plus benefits and pension) between now and 2021, when the collective agreement between the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg and the city expires.
On Wednesday, a spokesman reaffirmed the city still wasn’t sure how much it paid Forrest between 1997 and 2014 — citing an inability to find a paper trail for the arrangement. While the city continues to look for the paperwork, the spokesman gave no indication when — or if — it will be able to track it down.
Coun. Scott Gillingham (St. James-Brooklands-Weston), chairman for the city’s standing policy committee on finance, was asked Wednesday if taxpayers should be concerned the city seems unable to establish just when it started paying Forrest’s salary.
"If there’s no record of when this started, then, yes, it is concerning. To me, what’s important moving forward is ensuring the necessary changes are put in place for the future years. Any future agreement needs to make sure the UFFW reimburses the citizens of Winnipeg for 100 per cent of their union president’s salary," Gillingham said.
When asked if he could find any explanation, or rationalization, for why the city would be paying a portion of a union leader’s salary for 20 years, Gillingham said: "Because this agreement was struck under previous councils and mayors, the rationale behind it is something you’d have to speak to people who were there at the time to understand."
When asked to respond to criticism that he’s in a conflict of interest by collecting a paycheque from Winnipeg taxpayers, while potentially negotiating against their interests at the bargaining table, Forrest said he makes no apologies for his work over the past 20 years.
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.
Updated on Thursday, January 11, 2018 at 6:16 AM CST: Fixes typo