June 23, 2018

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Documents reveal firefighters union head not on committee he used to justify taxpayer-covered salary

Firefighters union president Alex Forrest does not appear to have ever been a member of one of eight city committees he has used to justify Winnipeg taxpayers covering his salary for more than a decade.

That’s based on responses to freedom of information requests filed by the Free Press, which also show the City of Winnipeg does not have — or cannot find — attendance records for four of the eight committees.

The existing documents, along with the missing records, continue to paint a picture of a work environment where Forrest has been allowed to come and go as he pleases, with little to no oversight on what, if any, value he's been delivering to the Winnipeggers paying his salary, said Todd MacKay, prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“This is absolutely unacceptable and (they're running) a Post-it note city hall. Keeping track of attendance is standard procedure for a local bowling club, let alone a city," MacKay said.

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Firefighters union president Alex Forrest does not appear to have ever been a member of one of eight city committees he has used to justify Winnipeg taxpayers covering his salary for more than a decade.

That’s based on responses to freedom of information requests filed by the Free Press, which also show the City of Winnipeg does not have — or cannot find — attendance records for four of the eight committees.

The existing documents, along with the missing records, continue to paint a picture of a work environment where Forrest has been allowed to come and go as he pleases, with little to no oversight on what, if any, value he's been delivering to the Winnipeggers paying his salary, said Todd MacKay, prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"This is absolutely unacceptable and (they're running) a Post-it note city hall. Keeping track of attendance is standard procedure for a local bowling club, let alone a city," MacKay said.

"They're failing on basic levels of accountability and they need to explain quickly how they're going to fix this."

<p>Documents obtained through freedom of information documenting Firefighters Union president Alex Forrest's attendance on various City of Winnipeg committees.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Documents obtained through freedom of information documenting Firefighters Union president Alex Forrest's attendance on various City of Winnipeg committees.

That was echoed by Alan Levy, a labour-relations expert and associate professor of business at Brandon University, who said in his 35-year career he's never heard of an organization that does not keep track of who shows up for work. "The bottom line is, this is not normal and not how a well-oiled, well-managed organization would be run," Levy said.

"I've been in labour relations for a long time and we always kept minutes and attendance of meetings. We did that because we had to prove that we were doing what we said we would do when we sat down at the table."

Forrest did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

A request to interview City of Winnipeg chief corporate services officer Michael Jack was not granted prior to publication.

Felicia Wiltshire, the city's director of customer service and communications, asked the Free Press to send copies of its freedom of information responses before the city provided comment; the Free Press declined to do so.

Later Tuesday, Wiltshire sent a written statement to the Free Press, saying the city "creates records that are important for its own administrative purposes, but the city won’t always keep records of attendance at meetings if it has no relevance to outcome or purpose of the meeting."

<p>UFFW president Alex Forrest does not appear to have ever been a member of one of eight city committees for more than a 10 years.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

UFFW president Alex Forrest does not appear to have ever been a member of one of eight city committees for more than a 10 years.

She went on to write arbitration hearings and the employee benefits board are not "city run, so therefore records on attendance wouldn’t be kept with the city."

However, that seems to be contradicted in part by the freedom of information response, which said the city does have records of United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg arbitration hearings, but it’s not city practice "to record or otherwise document attendees of arbitration hearings."

The Free Press has obtained Forrest’s attendance records, going back more than a decade, for three of the committees in question: the labour management committee; joint safety committee; and medical advisory committee.

From 1997 to present, Forrest has not once been listed as a member of the medical advisory committee. It remains unclear if Forrest was a member prior to becoming union president in 1997.

In April, the Free Press reported Forrest hadn’t attended a single joint safety meeting since at least December 2006, but can now confirm he's been absent since August that year. From October 2004 (when he became a member) to present, Forrest has attended five of 73 meetings (6.85 per cent). He continues to be listed as a "worker member" of the committee and has been marked absent for the last 60 meetings.

Forrest’s best attendance record looks to be on the labour management committee, having shown up for 51 of 82 meetings (62 per cent) from 2001 to present. City records for that committee don’t go back further than 2001.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Those three committees are among the eight Forrest pointed to in past interviews with the Free Press to justifying taxpayers picking up the tab for his salary — as stipulated under Article 20 of the City of Winnipeg and UFFW collective agreement.

The other five are the negotiations committee, special committees appointed by council or labour management, the employee benefits board, arbitration hearings and disciplinary hearings.

For four of the five, the freedom of information responses said the city does not have — or cannot find — any attendance records. The city also said the employee benefits board is an "independent body, separate from City of Winnipeg administration," so it remains unclear why the city agreed to pay for Forrest's work on it.

To access attendance records for the negotiation committee from 1997 to present, the city's freedom of information request office attached a price tag of $1,260 in the form of a processing fee. The Free Press has not yet responded to the request for payment.

"This overall lack of transparency has been outrageous," MacKay said. "(Mayor Brian) Bowman got elected on a promise to be more transparent. But the reality is city hall is failing to provide transparency that would be absolutely basic in any other scenario and they need to be held accountable for that.

"(Bowman's) allowing (freedom of information) responses go out with huge price tags attached, when he should be in the photocopy room making copies for reporters and any other taxpayers who want it. This information belongs to the people. For city hall to continue with foot-dragging and red tape, and then hammer with the huge fee requests, isn't acceptable."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Forrest first came under fire in January, when it was revealed the City of Winnipeg had been paying 100 per cent of his salary, plus benefits and pension payments, without reimbursement from the union, since he became UFFW president in 1997. Forrest later admitted he also collects a second paycheque — a top-up representing the partial wage of a city firefighter — from his union.

In 2014, that deal — which the city administration says it is unable to find a paper trail for — was renegotiated, with the city agreeing to pay 60 per cent of Forrest’s salary for however long he remains union president.

Other civic unions in Winnipeg reimburse the city for union presidents' salaries.

Based on freedom of information requests filed by the Free Press, and past statements from city spokesmen, it’s been determined the city has no paper trail for Forrest’s unusual salary arrangement, no attendance records for four of the eight committees in question and no documentation on how much time he spent working outside Winnipeg from 1997-2017.

In January, the Free Press reported — based on information culled from his Twitter account — he’d taken at least 60 out-of-town trips since 2014.

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 Tuesday, May 29, 2018 at 6:58 PM CDT: Adds photos

7:07 PM: Updates headline

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