November 11, 2019

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Cleaning up

In wake of scandals, new city mayor has tough job winning back public trust

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/10/2014 (1864 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/10/2014 (1864 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg's electorate is in an unusually surly mood, primarily because of two different types of rotten.

First, there's the physical sort of rot: the crumbing roads, manganese-laden water pipes and underwhelming public transit, to name but a few humiliating aspects of municipal infrastructure in this city.

Then there's the metaphorical sense of something rotten at the foundations of a city hall practically paralyzed by scandal during the latter years of the Sam Katz administration.

The fire-paramedic station construction scandal, a variety of questionable real estate transactions and a police-headquarters debacle that has yet to run its course have all shaken public confidence in 510 Main St. — and have forced Manitoba Justice to ask the RCMP to consider an investigation.

Whoever succeeds Katz on Oct. 22 will have to win back the public trust. This will not be easy, as the seven candidates running for mayor must address a profound sense of public cynicism about municipal politics and public servants alike.

All of them have made promises to make city hall more open, ethical or simply adhere to existing processes. While this city will be graced by a new mayor, nothing less than widespread cultural change will be required to clean up a public administration that remains unrepentant at best and deluded at worst about the way it is perceived by ordinary Winnipeggers.

How did we get here?

There's a management truism that the culture of any organization is set by the person at the top.

On an ethical basis, the City of Winnipeg has suffered from dubious leadership for years, thanks to the actions of the outgoing mayor and senior members of the public service.

Katz set the tone early in his time in office when he reneged on a 2004 campaign promise to place his personal assets in a blind trust. The mayor claimed he was assured by the city clerk there was no regulation compelling him to do so — beginning a pattern of blaming public officials for his personal decisions or problems afflicting city hall.

The demeaning of the mayor's office under Katz continued in 2005, when the mayor failed to recuse himself from a vote in favour of financial compensation for Walker Theatre creditors who had previously paid him a semblance of what he was personally owed from the same project.

It continued through into the early months of 2008, when Katz served as both Winnipeg's mayor and the president of a non-profit organization that sought a retroactive rent reduction to settle a three-year property-assessment battle over a surface parking lot near The Forks.

It continued into 2011, when Katz told a group of reporters he was meeting with Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi rather than admit he spent the previous weekend at his second home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

It reached a peak in 2012 when Katz purchased an Arizona shell company from then-chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl before selling it back. The same year, Katz paid cash to purchase a Scottsdale home valued at US$1 million from a Winnipeg developer's sister-in-law.

Sheegl, meanwhile, was identified as a key player in some of the city actions examined by three scathing city audits.

The fire-paramedic station construction review excoriated the public service for building a station on land the city didn't own, setting up a three-for-one property land swap before declaring properties surplus, offering Shindico Realty a competitive advantage over other bidders and keeping council in the dark. A real estate audit contained many disturbing conclusions. No independent appraisal was conducted of the Canada Post building before the city bought it for $29.25 million and no other buildings were considered to serve as Winnipeg's police headquarters. No assessment was conducted of the Parker lands before they were swapped to a private developer. The expression-of-interest document soliciting offers to purchase the Canad Inns Stadium site was shared with one proponent before being made public. Shindico appeared to work for both the city and the eventual buyer of the Winnipeg Square Parkade.

Finally, the police-headquarters audit concluded the city awarded a construction contract eventually worth more than $150 million to Caspian Construction without a tender for the final work or a bid from that firm.

The price tag for this project now stands at $210 million, up from $136 million. Winnipeggers have a right to be upset about the outcome — and demand action from the next mayor to prevent anything like this from happening again.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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