September 16, 2019

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Province to launch review into how development projects carried out in city

Brian Pallister has announced an independent review of how the City of Winnipeg approves and inspects construction and development projects, sparking a new controversy in the ongoing feud between Broadway and city hall.

The premier unveiled the initiative in a speech to about 350 people attending a Manitoba Chambers of Commerce breakfast Thursday.

Civic officials found out about it via email, just moments before Pallister began speaking.

Pallister said the review, which will include the permits process at Manitoba Hydro, the Office of the Fire Commissioner and the Red River Planning District, and possibly other municipalities and provincial bodies, was being launched as a result of ongoing concerns raised by various stakeholders, and not as the result of recent allegations about the work habits of city building inspectors.

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Brian Pallister has announced an independent review of how the City of Winnipeg approves and inspects construction and development projects, sparking a new controversy in the ongoing feud between Broadway and city hall. 

The premier unveiled the initiative in a speech to about 350 people attending a  Manitoba Chambers of Commerce breakfast Thursday.

Civic officials found out about it via email, just moments before Pallister began speaking.

Pallister said the review, which will include the permits process at Manitoba Hydro, the Office of the Fire Commissioner and the Red River Planning District, and possibly other municipalities and provincial bodies, was being launched as a result of ongoing concerns raised by various stakeholders, and not as the result of recent allegations about the work habits of city building inspectors.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p><p>Premier Brian Pallister encouraged the City of Winnipeg to accept the province's offer of help to launch a fiscal performance review of its operations.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister encouraged the City of Winnipeg to accept the province's offer of help to launch a fiscal performance review of its operations.

But Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said he is concerned the review is merely a "partisan, politically-motivated" attack on the city.

Bowman told reporters later in the day city council two years ago requested the Pallister government to hold a formal public inquiry under the Evidence Act, to examine a host of issues at city hall including the police headquarters project and conflict of interest issues between elected and senior civic officials and the firms that do business with city hall.

Bowman said Pallister has ignored the request but now appears motivated by the residential development industry, which he labelled a "special interest" trying to regain control of city hall, a boogeyman he raised often during the 2018 civic election campaign.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman responds: It's a 'partisan, politically motivated' attack on the city.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman responds: It's a 'partisan, politically motivated' attack on the city.

"If the premier’s intentions are genuine, he would call a public inquiry today. However, I fear this is simply a partisan, politically motivated exercise and far from being independent," Bowman said. "There are powerful special interests keen on regaining control at city hall. Now is not the time, on the precipice of a potential provincial election, to allow those powerful special interests and industry stakeholders to use the province as their agent to regain control."

A letter was sent to Bowman and other members of council from Municipal Relations Jeff Wharton, shortly before 8 a.m. Thursday, informing them of the province's plan to conduct the review and also repeating an offer to work with the city on a "broader fiscal performance review" of its operations to identify cost saving measures.

How they reacted

Reaction was rapid to the province's independent review of how the City of Winnipeg handles construction and development projects. 

Mayor Brian Bowman told reporters that rather than holding a review of planning procedures, the Pallister government should have complied with the request from council in February 2017 for a public inquiry under the Evidence Act to look into allegations surrounding the Winnipeg Police headquarters project and other real estate transactions and any related conflict of interest issues between elected and senior civic officials and the firms doing business with city hall.

Reaction was rapid to the province's independent review of how the City of Winnipeg handles construction and development projects. 

Mayor Brian Bowman told reporters that rather than holding a review of planning procedures, the Pallister government should have complied with the request from council in February 2017 for a public inquiry under the Evidence Act to look into allegations surrounding the Winnipeg Police headquarters project and other real estate transactions and any related conflict of interest issues between elected and senior civic officials and the firms doing business with city hall.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew suggested Premier Brian Pallister’s priorities are misplaced as he launches a review into the actions of the city’s Planning, Property and Development Department.

“The issue I hear most commonly from people in Winnipeg is how bad potholes are this year. The heavy-handed provincial investigation into the city isn’t going to fill a single pothole,” he said.

As for offering the city help in finding fiscal efficiencies, Kinew was similarly skeptical.

“What’s going on here, if you just cut through all the rhetoric is the premier is just trying to escalate his feud with the City of Winnipeg. And this is also, I would argue, his pre-election strategy.

“He knows there’s going to be an electoral battleground in Winnipeg. He knows he’s vulnerable because he’s been picking fights with the mayor. And he knows Winnipeggers don’t like that. So now he’s trying to reframe that relationship a little bit more to his direction.”

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said while the premier is lecturing the city on fiscal issues, his government has benefited greatly from large increases in transfer payments from Ottawa in recent years.

“He needs to spend more time focusing on getting things done with his own government (rather) than…picking fights or pushing the City of Winnipeg around,” he said.

Coun. Janice Lukes said the city's planning, property and development department should be viewed as an economic driver for both the city and the province and it needs to operating like a finely-tuned race car.

“I fully support the province’s initiative to undertake an independent review,” Lukes said. “I’m beyond delighted to see the province will examine the city’s property, planning and development department as a first step, and will do everything in my power to support these efforts. “

Coun. Scott Gillingham, chairman of the city’s finance committee, said he supports any initiative that enhances the delivery of service to Winnipeggers, adding the city would share with the province the findings of the internal probe into the allegations against the city building inspectors.

Gillingham said he’s also open to working with the province to finding efficiencies.

Bowman said Pallister's announcement was another in a long line of unilateral decisions taken by the province that have hurt city taxpayers, citing the end of the 50-50 joint cost-sharing agreement for Transit and the disputed $40-million for road work done last year.

Pallister told the business group Manitoba can't be the most improved province — something that has become a mantra for the province's 22nd premier — "unless Winnipeg is our most improved city."

He said that doesn't mean more provincial money for Winnipeg, but improvements in construction and land development and expenditure management by the city.

"In particular, industry stakeholders have told us they're concerned about the efficiency, the timeliness and the accountability of building permitting inspections and approvals," Pallister said. "These concerns aren't just limited to the City of Winnipeg processes and staff accountability. They've been raised in relation to the time frames involved in obtaining approvals from other authorities as well."

Allegations 'impacting morale'

The union representing building inspectors in Winnipeg’s planning, property and development department says its members will be defended with the full legal resources at its disposal in any investigation into their work habits.

Canadian Union of Public Employees local 500 president Gord Delbridge said he’s worried for his members after Premier Brian Pallister announced the province's intention to launch a review into allegations of workplace misconduct in the department Thursday.

The union representing building inspectors in Winnipeg’s planning, property and development department says its members will be defended with the full legal resources at its disposal in any investigation into their work habits.

Canadian Union of Public Employees local 500 president Gord Delbridge said he’s worried for his members after Premier Brian Pallister announced the province's intention to launch a review into allegations of workplace misconduct in the department Thursday.

“I am concerned," he said. "This government has got a long history of not being the most labour-friendly. They’ve got a proven track record with that. They’ve taken issue with unions and labour, so I can see them having a personal vendetta here.

The Free Press first reported allegations of widespread workplace misconduct in the city’s planning, property and development department two weeks ago; within hours, civic officials launched an internal probe.

Delbridge said many union members have experienced a public backlash since.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation for our members to be going through and I think it’s impacting morale. It’s hurting a lot of people,” Delbridge said.

He added he plans to reach out to the provincial government to discuss the planned review, but doesn’t expect the premier or Municipal Relations Minister Jeff Wharton will be interested in speaking with him.

“The province doesn’t typically consult with labour or unions," he said. "When they do, it’s typically vague and not very sincere. I will make the attempt anyway, but ultimately expect them to decline.”

Echoing comments made by Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman earlier in the day, Delbridge expressed concern the review is politically motivated.

The April 4 Free Press report was sparked by an $18,000 private investigation paid for by a group of frustrated taxpayers who had negative experiences in their dealings with the department and its inspectors.

The group hired a local private investigation firm to observe the activities of 17 inspectors over the course of a month. The firm alleges, on average, they were putting in three hours worth of work per day.

A spokesman for the group said Pallister's announcement is a “positive step,” but the members remain committed to the idea a full public inquiry is needed.

- Ryan Thorpe

He later told reporters that an internal city review is inadequate; it must be arm's-length.

"The city is put in a rough spot, frankly, trying to do an internal review on this. They are doing a bit of an investigative study right now, and of course we'll build on the work that they're doing. But it needs to be an arm's-length exercise, I think, to work effectively.

Pallister couldn't say Thursday who would conduct the independent review. He said those details are still to be worked out.

"I've just talked to my clerk (the province's chief bureaucrat) about this in recent days," he told reporters.

Pallister said the independent review would extend outside of the city as well to include the Red River planning district (which is responsible for planning matters for the RMs of St. Andrews, East St. Paul, West St. Paul, St. Clements, the city of Selkirk and the Village of Dunnottar), Manitoba Hydro and the Office of the Fire Commissioner. However, examining the City of Winnipeg's planning, property and development department's processes will be one of the first steps in the review.

In recent days, the Free Press has reported allegations of widespread misconduct among city building inspectors, including short, lackadaisical workdays, peppered with frequent coffee breaks, extended lunches, personal errands and shopping, and even drinking on the job.

Unanswered questions

Many questions remain unanswered following Premier Pallister’s surprise announcement Thursday that the province will establish an independent review into the planning and permitting processes at various municipal governments, planning authorities and provincial bodies.

Pallister told reporters that the review would include the City of Winnipeg, the Red River Planning District (which handles planning matters for the communities of St. Andrews, East St. Paul, West St. Paul, St. Clements, the City of Selkirk, and the Village of Dunnottar), Manitoba Hydro and the Office of the Fire Commissioner.

Many questions remain unanswered following Premier Pallister’s surprise announcement Thursday that the province will establish an independent review into the planning and permitting processes at various municipal governments, planning authorities and provincial bodies.

Pallister told reporters that the review would include the City of Winnipeg, the Red River Planning District (which handles planning matters for the communities of St. Andrews, East St. Paul, West St. Paul, St. Clements, the City of Selkirk, and the Village of Dunnottar), Manitoba Hydro and the Office of the Fire Commissioner.

In a letter to Mayor Brian Bowman dated April 18, Municipal Relations Minister Jeff Wharton said the review would also include “other authorities such as rural municipalities, planning district” but he did not identify those other authorities.

The Free Press was denied an interview with Wharton.

Caitlin MacGregor, Wharton’s press secretary, said the province will consult city hall on “next steps” and added that many details of the review are still being worked out. These, it appear, would include:

 

  • What other municipalities and planning districts will be included in the review?
  • What other provincial bodies will be reviewed?
  • How will the review be conducted?
  • When will it start?
  • Who will be on it?
  • Who will be chairing it?
  • Will Winnipeg city hall play a role in determining how the review will be conducted?
  • Is there a timeline for how long the review is expected to take?
  • Does the province need city hall’s permission to review its permit process?
  • What happens if city hall does not co-operate in this review?

Meanwhile, the premier said his government learned a lot about managing costs as it tackled a large provincial deficit upon taking office in 2016. He offered to share pertinent reports the government has received from consultants as it's strived to reduce costs. He also offered to cost-share the fiscal review with the city.

"We're not mandating that the city do a performance review. We just think it would be a really timely, good idea," Pallister said.

Bowman said the city, which is conducting its own internal probe into the allegations against the building inspectors, would co-operate fully with the province on the review but he said he would like a meeting with Pallister first to discuss their mutual concerns.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Aldo Santin

Aldo Santin
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at 6:35 PM CDT: Full writethrough, adds factboxes, video

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