Couns. Shawn Nason and Kevin Klein are raising concerns after some members of city council were treated to lunch by the Toronto development firm seeking to buy Portage Place shopping centre.
Nason and Klein said they didn’t think it was appropriate to have a meeting Tuesday with Starlight Investments representatives — given Winnipeg council will vote on the matter Thursday.
"We were already given a briefing on this. Starlight should have been there if they had something they thought we needed to know," Nason said. "Are they going to tell us something that we haven’t already been told?"
On July 5, councillors were told at a private briefing Starlight has offered the owner (a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Peterson Group) $22.9 million for the downtown mall, and a further $47 million for its land and underground parkade (owned by North Portage Development Corp., a public agency established in the 1980s by the three levels of government).
North Portage said it plans to invest the funds with the Winnipeg Foundation, which will provide it with an annuity of about $3 million to replace revenue from the land lease and parkade used to offset losses at The Forks (also run by the agency).
The deal needs to be approved by the three levels of government. City council is to vote on the proposed sale Thursday.
Seven members of council attended the 90-minute luncheon at the Inn at The Forks, which included several senior officials from Starlight.
Coun. Janice Lukes (Waverley West) said the gathering was extremely useful, however, all the material presented was marked confidential and she would not talk about it.
"Councillors who aren’t on the mayor’s executive policy committee (such as Lukes) receive limited information on issues facing council," she said. "Any information I get on a file that I have to vote on is extremely valuable."
Local planning consultants Richard Wintrup & Associates contacted all members of council in an email sent July 8, inviting them to Tuesday's meeting.
"The luncheon is to provide a fulsome update on current thoughts and plans as well as a Q-and-A session to garner further input from you," the invitation says. "Their proposed plans for Portage Place will can transform our downtown and address systemic issues in a very proactive and exciting way for all to benefit if we work together in a collaborative manner."
The lunch included sandwiches, a cheese platter, potato salad, pasta salad, fruit, water, coffee, tea, soft drinks and cream puffs for dessert.
Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood) said not being part of the mayor’s inner circle also puts him at a disadvantage, but attending such a function didn’t feel right.
"I’m uncomfortable obtaining information in a private session that isn’t publicly available and then voting on it at council," he said. "I wouldn’t let anyone buy me a cup of coffee, and I think as members of council we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard."
In addition to Lukes, other members of council who attended included: finance committee chairman Coun. Scott Gillingham, deputy mayor Coun. Markus Chambers, acting deputy mayor Coun. Vivian Santos, and Couns. Devi Sharma, Ross Eadie and Jeff Browaty.
Mayor Brian Bowman was out of town.
Nason (Transcona) said he contacted Winnipeg integrity commissioner Sherri Walsh about the luncheon, adding while she told him it would be acceptable, he decided against it.
Walsh said Tuesday she wouldn’t discuss any specific request from any member of council, but said lobbying is acceptable if it’s done in an open and transparent manner.
The City of Winnipeg maintains a voluntary registry where lobbyists are encouraged to register when they meet with a member of council and disclose the identity of their client. The city requests registrations occur within 10 days following a meeting with a member of council.
Starlight’s Tuesday luncheon was not listed on the city’s registry.
Walsh said the council code of conduct prohibits an elected official from accepting a gift that would create the impression the lobbyist is trying to secure the official’s support. However, accepting a simple lunch isn’t a violation of that rule, she said.
"I don’t think anyone’s going to think if you’re sitting down and meeting with a lobbyist that a couple of sandwiches is going to be considered a benefit that is attempting to influence you."
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.