October 15, 2018

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Editorial

Union head's empty chair concerning

Most people can agree that meetings — work, committee, board or otherwise — are long, tedious and, to quote a popular coffee mug, could’ve been an email. Still, most people have to actually go to them, especially if attendance is critical to a role.

So, when it was revealed recently that firefighters union president Alex Forrest hasn’t attended a single City of Winnipeg and United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg joint safety committee meeting since December 2006, it raised many a Winnipegger’s eyebrows.

Why does this matter? Well, that committee is one of eight city committees he has used to justify his salary, which was paid by the city in full from 1997 to 2014.

Since 2014, the city continues to pay 60 per cent of his $116,000 annual salary and related benefits, even though he works full time for the union. Over a 17-year period, that adds up to as much as $1.2 million.

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Most people can agree that meetings — work, committee, board or otherwise — are long, tedious and, to quote a popular coffee mug, could’ve been an email. Still, most people have to actually go to them, especially if attendance is critical to a role.

So, when it was revealed recently that firefighters union president Alex Forrest hasn’t attended a single City of Winnipeg and United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg joint safety committee meeting since December 2006, it raised many a Winnipegger’s eyebrows.

Why does this matter? Well, that committee is one of eight city committees he has used to justify his salary, which was paid by the city in full from 1997 to 2014.

Since 2014, the city continues to pay 60 per cent of his $116,000 annual salary and related benefits, even though he works full time for the union. Over a 17-year period, that adds up to as much as $1.2 million.

So, one can quickly see how the "I’m on lots of committees" justification becomes shaky if he’s been a no-show at one of them for more than a decade.

Mr. Forrest’s lack of attendance at joint safety committee meetings raises another important question: what other committee meetings is he skipping out on?

But his attendance isn’t the only issue.

Last week, Mayor Brian Bowman told the Free Press he doesn’t have the authority to release attendance records, and that might be a question for the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act office.

Meanwhile, the city spokesman the Free Press spoke to last week didn’t seem to know whether a freedom of information request had to be filed, or whether the information could be made available.

This is not the first time the City of Winnipeg has been less than clear with respect to Mr. Forrest’s salary. In January, Michael Jack, the city’s chief corporate services officer, said it was believed the city may have paid Mr. Forrest’s salary between 1997 and February 2014 without a written agreement. Then, a city spokesman refuted that, saying Mr. Forrest’s salary was stipulated in Article 20 of the collective agreements in effect during that period.

This mess doesn’t reflect well on Mayor Bowman, who ran for office on a platform of transparency. Attendance at City of Winnipeg committee meetings should be available to the public without the song and dance of paperwork and FOI requests.

Of course, there’s one easy possible solution: Mr. Forrest could release his own attendance records. If he makes no apologies for his work over the past 20 years, as he said in an interview with the Free Press in January, then ostensibly there’s nothing to hide.

It comes down to a simple question: which meetings have you attended, which ones have you missed? The public has the right to hear the answer — and to know what, exactly, they are paying for.

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