September 19, 2019

Winnipeg
16° C, Overcast

Full Forecast

Planning department problems require complex solution

Opinion

The results of a secret surveillance of the work habits of employees of the City of Winnipeg's planning, property and development department revealed many surprising findings.

Inspectors working only three hours a day. Two-hour lunches and coffee breaks. Personal errands and chores being done during work hours. In general, private investigators revealed what appeared to be a complete lack of commitment to the concept of an honest day's work.

And yet, as incredible as all that appears to be, the most unbelievable issue may be the city didn't know it had a problem.

However, talk to anyone in the local homebuilding, real estate or building trades industries and they will describe the sheer frustration that comes from dealing with the planning department. Ungodly delays in inspections, the chronic inability to reach anyone in the department on a timely basis, and a customer service culture that borders on contemptuous.

Keep reading free:

Already have an account? Log in here »

Keep reading free:

Already have an account? Log in here »

Subscribers Log in below to continue reading,
not a subscriber? Create an account to start a 30 day free trial.

Log in Create your account

Your free trial has come to an end.

We hope you have enjoyed your trial! To continue reading, we recommend our Read Now Pay Later membership. Simply add a form of payment and pay only 27¢ per article.

For unlimited access to the best local, national, and international news and much more, try an All Access Digital subscription:

Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

Your free trial has come to an end.

We hope you have enjoyed your trial! To continue reading, we recommend our Read Now Pay Later membership. Simply add a form of payment and pay only 27¢ per article.

For unlimited access to the best local, national, and international news and much more, try an All Access Digital subscription:

Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

Mon to Sat Delivery

Pay

$34.36

per month

  • Includes all benefits of All Access Digital
  • 6-day delivery of our award-winning newspaper
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

We hope you have enjoyed your free trial!

To continue reading, select a plan below:

Read Now Pay Later

Pay

27¢

per article

  • Commitment-free
  • Cancel anytime
  • Only pay for what you read
  • Refunds available
Continue

All Access Digital

Introductory pricing*

99¢

per month

  • Unlimited online reading and commenting
  • Daily newspaper replica e-Edition
  • News Break - our award-winning iOS app
  • Exclusive perks & discounts
Continue

*Introductory pricing schedule for 12 month: $0.99/month plus tax for first 3 months, $5.99/month for months 4 - 6, $10.99/month for months 7 - 9, $13.99/month for months 10 - 12. Standard All Access Digital rate of $16.99/month begins after first year.

The results of a secret surveillance of the work habits of employees of the City of Winnipeg's planning, property and development department revealed many surprising findings.

Inspectors working only three hours a day. Two-hour lunches and coffee breaks. Personal errands and chores being done during work hours. In general, private investigators revealed what appeared to be a complete lack of commitment to the concept of an honest day's work.

And yet, as incredible as all that appears to be, the most unbelievable issue may be the city didn't know it had a problem.

However, talk to anyone in the local homebuilding, real estate or building trades industries and they will describe the sheer frustration that comes from dealing with the planning department. Ungodly delays in inspections, the chronic inability to reach anyone in the department on a timely basis, and a customer service culture that borders on contemptuous.

The City of Winnipeg is currently conducting its own review of the department and the findings of the private investigation. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The City of Winnipeg is currently conducting its own review of the department and the findings of the private investigation. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The group of citizens who paid $18,000 out of their own pockets for a private investigator to surveil city planning inspectors had, on their own, made numerous complaints about the inability to get an inspection done in a timely fashion. "Why are we waiting months and months and months for someone to come out and inspect some electrical work to get a permit for a deck?" asked one.

When you consider the planning department is renowned for its pokey response and its sometimes prickly attitude — and it receives complaints to that effect all the time — it makes you wonder: did the city really need the findings of a private investigation to know there was a problem?

The City of Winnipeg is currently conducting its own review of the department and the findings of the private investigation, although it's not clear whether an institution that lost its capacity to supervise its inspectors is in any position to identify how and why they were allowed to operate in such a slipshod fashion.

"It's not clear whether an institution that lost its capacity to supervise its inspectors is in any position to identify how and why they were allowed to operate in such a slipshod fashion."

Still, there are a few obvious issues that need to be considered.

It's possible there was so little turnover among the nearly 60 inspectors in the planning department that a culture of entitlement developed among those who had been in their jobs so long they had lost their sense of commitment to the job and to taxpayers.

There should also be some consideration of whether the department simply does not have the right number of people to oversee the work.

Surveillance footage of City of Winnipeg planning, property and development department employee shopping at Costco. (Supplied)

Surveillance footage of City of Winnipeg planning, property and development department employee shopping at Costco. (Supplied)

Like many municipalities, over the past 30 years, Winnipeg has diligently cut back on the ranks of middle managers to bring overall costs under control. This kind of expenditure control is driven by the deeply held belief among elected officials that government is weighed down by overpaid managers who really don't return much value to taxpayers.

That very well may be, but there are instances where Winnipeg might have to consider the possibility of having too few supervisors. You know, the kind of people who ensure accountability from civic employees; public or private sector, you need people to keep an eye on the people doing the work.

It's also possible the planning department is just so overwhelmed by demands for service the inspectors became despondent and, ultimately, disengaged. In other words, they just gave up when they realized the mountain of work they were facing each day was never going to get done.

That may seem like an excuse for what appears to be an irresponsible work ethic, but it's hard to ignore the disconnect between the size of the job and the size of the department.

The Free Press reported last week the city planning department and its roughly 62 inspectors conducted 143,000 residential and commercial inspections. That works out to about 2,300 inspections per inspector or — based on approximately 250 working days per year (not accounting for vacation and sick days) — more than nine inspections per day.

There is no doubt those extended delays that prompted the activist citizens to hire a private investigator would be shortened by a roster of inspectors who put in a full day's work.

However, it is also little doubt that even with a longer work day, this is a department facing an enormous challenge.

Civic politicians and senior bureaucrats seem as blissfully ignorant of the overwhelming demand for service as they are about the woeful work ethic in the planning department.

"Civic politicians and senior bureaucrats seem as blissfully ignorant of the overwhelming demand for service as they are about the woeful work ethic in the planning department. "

Mayor Brian Bowman and many city councillors like to talk about "reducing red tape" to make it easier to do business with the city, but rarely do they talk about improving oversight of service delivery or ensuring civic departments have the resources to meet the needs of the citizenry.

The City of Winnipeg Planning Property and Development offices at 65 Garry Street. The Free Press reported last year the city planning department and its roughly 62 inspectors conducted 143,000 residential and commercial inspections. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The City of Winnipeg Planning Property and Development offices at 65 Garry Street. The Free Press reported last year the city planning department and its roughly 62 inspectors conducted 143,000 residential and commercial inspections. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The mayor and council do like to boast about the city's vacancy management program, where it slows or stops hiring to fill vacant positions to save money.

Sure, it saves money now but it may cost taxpayers quite a bit in terms of poor service in key areas — like the planning department.

The City of Winnipeg should not ignore the results of this extraordinary investigation. But in devising solutions, council should not just focus on the shortcomings of the inspectors themselves.

The worst offenders should be held accountable, but this is a complex problem that will require a complex set of solutions.

Among those solutions should be a commitment from council and the senior bureaucracy to pay more attention when taxpayers are telling them there's something wrong at city hall.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 at 9:42 PM CDT: Fixes timeline.

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.