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Is the Disraeli Bridge debacle the start of a revolution at city hall?

We fell for it hook, line and sinker.

The Disraeli Bridge Deception is a textbook example of everything that's wrong with city hall in Winnipeg.

But this is an election year, and Mayor Sam Katz may find it one doublecross too many for people to stomach.

It was April, 2008, when city hall announced that the aging Disraeli Bridge needed to be replaced expeditiously. The bridge had reached the end of its lifespan, we were told, and it was literally beginning to fall apart. But, in keeping with the modern mode of democracy, the public would be consulted about its preferences in a new bridge.

So a series of public meetings were held where taxpayers could give their opinions on three bridge proposals which were variations of a four-lane refurbished Disraeli bridge with a new bicycle lane and a pedestrian walkway or two.

The best-received, carrying a cost of $140 million, was duly announced.

Twenty months later, City Hall is signing contracts for two bridges instead of one, at a cost of $195 million and counting, requiring rerouting of streets to link to a new, and not refurbished, structure.

It turns out city administrators held secret meetings with a special interest group after the pubic consultation meetings were over and decided to toss out the public's choice and replace it with something the group wanted.

We'll return to these secret meetings in a minute.

From Day 1, the biggest concern was the length of time the Disraeli would be closed for construction---estimated at 16 months, at least. City officials said it was unavoidable, that all options had been considered and none was a viable alternative to diverting traffic.

Not so, said an assortment of politicians and private citizens. The solution was, in fact, already part of their plans for infrastructure renewal.

Replace the Louise bridge first, they said, then divert traffic over the Louise while rebuilding the Disraeli.

Impossible, declared city administrators. You little people don't know what you're talking about. You're well meaning but simple folk who shouldn't try to armchair quarerback experts like us. This isn't Sim City. There just isn't time to replace the Louise first. Trust us.

And we did.
Stupidly, we did.

When concerned citizens like Phil Walding and Regan Wolfram spent days coming up with carefully thought-out plans showing how the Louise bridge alternative could work, we stayed silent. We bought the spiel that time was of the essence, that work on the Disraeli had to start as soon as possible.

Now we know the city officials lied. There was plenty of time.

The construction of the new Disraeli Bridge won't start until 2011, three years after public consultations were announced.

If the Disraeli can be designed in a year, the Louise Bridge could have been designed and built in those 3 years.

This week two city councillors provided vital information to understanding the Disraeli Deception. Interviewed (separately) on The Great Canadian Talk Show, the talk radio drive-home show on 92.9 Kick FM, Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) and Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) made important revelations which, to them as city councillors, were old hat, but to us, the public, were shocking.

Jeff Browaty defended the increased cost of the Disraeli project on Wednesday. We'll get a new bridge, he said, regurgitating the official script. Then he blurted out that the Louise Bridge was never considered an option. It was dismissed out of hand because it is a major project in itself, one that will involve realigning Higgins Avenue and likely moving the bridge east.

Rebuilding the Louise isn't any bigger than the mishmash the city has made of the Disrali bridge replacement. But Browaty did us a favour by highlighting the thinking behind the walls of city hall.

Why look at it replacing the two bridges as one project in two parts when you can divide it into two projects, each with its own, ahem, opportunities.

Remember, the public thought the Disraeli Bridge replacement was on track as soon as the public consultations were over. Instead, city administrators held secret meetings with people who had their own ideas for Disraeli but didn't want the public to know about them.

Hmmmm. Secret meetings. Special interest groups. Millions of dollars to be spent. No accountability.

Do your own word association. What comes to mind?

Kickbacks?

Payoffs?

Graft?

The public was astonished to learn, four months after the public meetings, that the city was planning to build two bridges to replace the old Disraeli, a refurbished bridge for cars and a brand new bridge for bicycles.

Certainly the pro-bicycle, anti-car lobby group Bike to the Future, which was behind the second bridge, doesn't have the money to entice city officials.

Hmmmm? Who would be interested in having the inside track on the city's plans for multi-million-dollar bridges that had never been discussed in public?

* The city held secret meetings.
* The public was not invited.
* There are no transcripts.
* We don't know when the meetings took place.
* Or where.
* Or who attended.

We don't know what promises were made.

Or what information about possible land expropriation was given.

And if there's money to be made on one big bridge project, imagine the money when you have the skinny on the second project---the Louise bridge.

More secret meetings, ya think?
And what surprises await us there?

Then on Thursday, Jenny Gerbasi dropped a bigger bombshell.

City council had nothing to do with the final design of the Disraeli Bridge. Or the two-bridge design before that, she said.

There was never any vote, or any questions in council because the entire project had been delegated to Glen Laubenstein, Winnipeg's chief administrative officer and the mayor's right hand.

So, holding secret meetings with special interest groups was Laubenstein's responsibility.

And making a mockery of the public consultation process was Laubenstein's idea.

And raising the cost of the Disraeli replacement by $55 million was Laubensteins's decision.

But, but, but....isn't the province giving us the extra money? Wake up. The "province" is Winnipeg.

Don't think for a second that taxpayers in Morden or Thompson are subsidized a bridge in Winnipeg. Whenever the "province" contributes to a city project, its the Winnipeg taxpayer paying twice.

But, but, but...Browaty says we're getting a brand new bridge that will last 75 years, a refurbished bridge would need replacement after 45.

Oh, really? Here's what the City of Winnipeg said in announcing public consultations on a new Disraeli Bridge:

http://www.winnipeg.ca/publicworks/MajorProjects/DisraeliBridges/newsletterApril2008.pdf

Why are the Bridges being rehabilitated?
The Disraeli Bridges Rehabilitation Project includes
the bridge over the Red River and the overpass
crossing over the CP Rail mainline. A Condition
Assessment found numerous deficiencies that
need rehabilitation or upgrading in order to
achieve a further 75 year service life and to meet
current design standards.

Were they lying to us then, or are they lying to us now?

But, but, but....isn't this a private-public partnership, so that the city isn't on the hook for the cost?

Let's see....the city starts by having to borrow $75 million. After breaking the Norrie-era habit of deficit financing, we're back in hock just as interest rates start rising.

Then, nobody knows what the bridges will cost. Like the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, we're writing a blank cheque. Here's how the city's own news releases says it:

"The City's capital budgets have allocated a total of $195 million for the project. This is a preliminary estimate, and the actual amount may change as plans are finalized."

And what will happen if the private partners walk away if their profit margin evaporates? Guess who gets to pick up the entire tab? Oh, wait, maybe the "province" will help.

The bottom line is city administrators lied to us.

- They said the Disraeli bridge had to be rebuilt asap.
- They dismissed the obvious solution to the traffic snarl, replacing the Louise bridge first.
- They then delayed the process to hold secret meetings with a private group.

They tossed out the public's preference in design for a new Disraeli bridge and replaced it with the private group's chosen design.

Then they raised the cost by $55 million to start.

And they spun it as a victory for the public (the bridge will stay open) and a demonstration that city hall listens.

But the public knows a con job when they see it. And for Mayor Katz that could be bad news.

His hand-picked city administrator is responsible for the Disraeli Deception. Above all, he's responsible for the added cost and the coming expropriation controversies.

Until now, Katz has held the high ground over his left-leaning opponents. He's been able to argue his business background provides superior value to taxpayers over the tax-and-spend alternative.

Thanks to Laubenstein, he's lost that argument.

If Laubenstein can raise the cost of the Disraeli bridge by almost 40 percent, a year before construction starts, then where's the alleged benefit of trusting the business-oriented council over the union-backed councillors?

In this case it's Katz's council nemesis Jenny Gerbasi who deserves full credit for fighting for accountability from the city administration, transparency from Laubenstein, and debate and a vote by the elected councillors.

Katz, meanwhile, is forced to defend secret negotiations which lend to the perception of a potential for payoffs and graft.

If new union-supported, NDP-backed councillors can simply stop a repeat of the Disraeli Deception and stop writing blank cheques to millionaires and developers, then they won't need to raise taxes. That just might be worth the risk.

Browaty raised one point that needs to be heard by the provincial NDP government.

He said he cared about the city in general, but that he was elected to represent North Kildonan and that's how he voted on the Disraeli project. Residents of other affected areas, such as North and South Point Douglas, should expect their councillors to represent their interests, he said.

Revolutionary? No.

But blazingly relevant in an election year.

By any measure, Mynarski ward councillor Harry Lazarenko is unresponsive to the concerns of his constituents in north Point Douglas. And (south) Point Douglas ward rep Mike Pagtakhan is fast on his way to becoming Lazarenko's shadow.

If these deadbeats keep getting elected, and keep ignoring their constituents, then vast swaths of Winnipeg have no practical representation in council or with the city administration that obviously now replaces council in many areas.

How will the province which controls the governance of Winnipeg respond to this deficit in democratic responsibilities?

Recall legislation? Mandatory accountability sessions for councillors? What do you suggest?

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