The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Friday, November 30, 2012

CMHR reaches for your wallet again.

If you thought this summer's $60 million government bailout of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was the last of your money going into this white elephant, then you haven't read their latest corporate plan.

They want more. Lots more. Details in a minute...

The museum's board of trustees realizes it has a great big horking credibility problem.

Among the seven things the Museum "needs" to do is:

* Restore and retain public confidence, developing and sustaining momentum and support until opening and beyond.

Ya think?

Just because the museum proponents...

* lied to the Senate by promising that taxpayers would never be asked for more than the initial $100 million federal start-up money

* deliberately lowballed the cost of the project at $265 million to get government approval---and financing

* lied that the $310 million new cost was the bottom line guaranteed final figure

* lied that the museum would pay its property taxes
* lied to the country's ethnic communities about the preeminence of the Holocaust over their stories

Now why would anybody think the CMHR board was untrustworthy?

They realize, sort of, they've developed a problem getting people on board.

"While we have had much success in positively engaging a multitude of representative groups from communities across Canada, there are some communities who have not expressed the same level of support for the Museum. We will continue to build bridges with these communities and will work with them wherever possible to try to alleviate their concerns."

"Some communities"?

Like the Ukrainians who board member Gail Asper smeared as anti-Semites because they dared question the hierarchy of genocides the CMHR was creating, putting the Holocaust at the top with the rest of the world's atrocities also-rans?

When Gail Asper was engaging in her hate campaign against the Ukrainian community, the board of the CMHR didn't repudiate her. CEO Stu Murray kept giving speeches about welcoming a diversity of opinion even as Gail Asper tried to villify and silence an entire ethnic community. Eric Hughes, the newly appointed Chairman, sat on the board and failed to speak up to stop Gail Asper's vile attacks. Only after donations dried up like a puddle in a heatwave did they try to "build bridges".

When she is removed from the board of trustees, then will the damage she's done be alleviated.

The corporate plan looks ahead four years and projects revenue and expenses. We learn, for example, that the cost of exhibits is going to be $52.7 million. That's a hefty increase over the $34 million they estimated four years ago.

The CMHR foresees that operating expenses are going to climb ever higher than, you know, expected.
In the 2012-2013 fiscal year they're getting $21.7 million from the federal government to cover operating expenses. And that's when the museum isn't even built.

Next year, 2013-2014, they'll get the same amount. That's a year when the museum won't even be opened. But, they say, they'll get by.

The year after, things go off the rails. In 2014-2015 they're only getting $21.7 million but expenses are expected to climb to $24 million.

And by 2015-2016 those projected expenses have jumped to $24,600,000 while the feds are only writing cheques for $21.7 million.

The Museum says it expects to cover the shortfalls through its own fundraising. (Ha ha. Now don't laugh. This is serious.) They're figuring on raising $1.5 million from admissions and museum memberships, $600,000 from selling food, and $700,000 from t-shirts and other items sold in the gift shop.

You don't think the fact that the museum's director of finance, director of facilities and manager of marketing and sales have all gone out the door this month will affect these numbers, do you? Or is that vice versa?

The CMHR has a backup plan, in any event, a plan its only hinting at but which follows a well worn path.

"The Museum’s annual parliamentary appropriation is $21.7 million – an amount that was determined from a comprehensive, yet preliminary, business plan commissioned by Friends and completed six years ago in February 2006."

Sound familiar? The annual operating funding is based on a "preliminary" business plan "completed six years ago." Oh, woe.

Isn't it obvious that it's hopelessly out of date and needs to be upgraded---as in GIVE US MORE MONEY.

This is exactly the scam pulled when the building costs went out of control.
Suddenly the "final figure" became only an estimate, superceded by unforeseen reality which required a $60 million bailout from governments.

How much more do they want? Well, start with that pesky problem of property taxes.

As a federal institution they don't legally have to pay taxes to the city, but the government has accepted a moral obligation to make payments-in-lieu of taxes on federal buildings. The CMHR corporate plan reveals for the first time ever that token payments on the museum's tax bill have been made by Public Works and Government Services Canada, not the CMHR out of its multi-million dollar operating funds.

The federal government has paid $225,000 to cover a portion of the tax bill for 2009, 2010,and 2011. The CMHR actually already owes over $500,000, which includes $361,000 in assessed taxes, $118,000 that was mysteriously removed from their bill without any explanation, and at least $50,000 in arrears that for some unexplained reason aren't being charged by the City of Winnipeg.

Once the museum is open, it will get the full tax bill which has been estimated at anywhere from $5 million to $9 million for the $300 million structure on prime riverfront property, not a penny of which the CMHR has because they, ahem, forgot to budget for it in their operating expenses.

The most recent corporate plan doesn't mention it, but a previous one did, they also didn't budget for utilities.

Are they expecting Manitoba Hydro to waive their electricity and heating bills? Winnipeg to forget the water bill (which just went up)?

Hydro cuts off service to the poor for non-payment; will they heat and light the pet project of millionaires for free?

Maybe somebody can ask at the coming annual meeting of the CMHR on Dec. 6.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

The live chicken and the dead duck

Reporters recently went gaga over the story of an activist who brought a live chicken to Winnipeg City Hall.

A delegation showed up to pitch the joys of raising chickens in the city. One of them pulled a live chicken out of a bag. Security was called to get the fowl out. That's the kind of story that only comes along once in a lifetime. Of course, it was covered by every news outlet in the city.

The story left everyone laughing. Everyone who isn't Brian Pallister, the newly minted leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba.

In one minute, that chicken created more excitement than Pallister has managed in the six months since he announced his bid to be party leader.

In the week before the current session of the Manitoba Legislature got underway, Pallister had two opportunities to create some buzz. He was the guest speaker at a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce breakfast, surely a friendly audience. News coverage: zero. The next day he was interviewed by Winnipeg Free Press columnist Dan Lett at the FP News Cafe. News coverage: zero.

Ask anyone about the chicken and you'll get a big grin and and an "Oh, yeah." Ask them about the recent P.C. annual general meeting presided over by Brian Pallister and you'll get a blank stare.

You could prompt them by asking about the stirring speech delivered by the new Tory leader that had the 600 delegates on their feet cheering, hooting, singing and hungry for NDP blood.

You would be lying. There was no such speech. The Conservatives are not cheering their new leader. They're scratching their heads and wondering how they got stuck with another loser.

Way back in April, Pallister announced formally he was running to be leader of the P.C. Party in Manitoba. The declaration was a dud because nobody else wanted the job. Pallister then had 100 days to say and do anything he wanted to raise his profile and pump some life into the moribund Conservatives. He did--nothing.

He was acclaimed leader in July. With the press crowding around him to record every word he had to say on the day he officially became leader of the Opposition---he told them to come back the next day. Few bothered. And those that did left wondering why, because he had next to nothing to say then either.
A byelection was announced immediately afterward to fill the seat left vacant by Pallister's predecessor. For 30 days, Pallister campaigned door-to-door against opponents like the NDP's sacrificial lamb, Baa-randy Schmidt; Bob Axworthy, famous for being not his brother Lloyd Axworthy; and Darrell Ackman, a hustler and tireless self-promoter who dominated press coverage of the byelection with his outstanding charges of exploiting teenage girls for sex.

The city hall chicken got more and better press than Pallister did during the byelection
. With a month to show people what a new Conservative Party would look like, Pallister left the presentation of new ideas to other candidates, who jumped at the opportunity.

Darrell Ackman, under attack for even being allowed to run for office while facing charges, did more to educate the ignorant about human rights under Canada's constitution than the entire board of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has ever done, starting with the right to be presumed innocent under the law.

None of the hypocrites from the Manitoba human rights establishment stepped forward to defend Ackman's human rights, by the way.

Even Green Party candidate Donnie Benham bettered Pallister with his pet issue---the culture of entitlement that sees politicians quit soon after winning their seats, forcing expensive byelections. Politicians like former P.C. leader Hugh McFadyen who ran an election in 2010 asking the residents of Fort Whyte to give him their trust as their representative in the Legislature. He tossed that trust in the dumpster on his way out of town to a job in Calgary, sticking taxpayers with a $600,000 bill for this byelection.

The press never got around to asking McFadyen's successor, Brian Pallister, about this breach of trust. But it's an issue that deserved a much greater airing that it got from the MSM, who, you guessed it, treated it as a joke because it came from a fringe candidate.

(The solution to quitters, by the way, is surprisingly easy
. If the winning candidate quits before his term is up, the second-place finisher automatically becomes the MLA. No byelection necessary. That should make quitters think twice before leaving.)

Pallister babbled something to the tiny News Cafe audience about his plans to live his policies when the Legislature got back in session. Or something like that. By that time, after close to an hour of aimless chatter, we weren't paying much attention, just like most Manitobans.

The few nuggets of information he did drop:

* he's counting on 57 rebuilt constituency associations to bring out the vote in the next election,
* he's reading a book by Barack Obama's campaign manager for tips on getting elected, and
* the Tories have raised more money than ever.

They'll need it, because right now they can't buy public attention. Pallister hasn't raised a ripple in the Legislature despite all his big talk.

Another billion dollar deficit on the horizon? Five years of supervisors' notes in the Phoenix Sinclair case missing and presumed destroyed secretly under the NDP's watch? Eh, who would expect the Opposition to ask questions about that stuff? Certainly not the party leader.

But, the Conservatives are flush with cash. And that means they can afford their only hope to win an election---The Black Rod Bolt (as we've named it). It was exactly one year ago when we revealed its existence.

Our offer is not a joke, not a prank and not a tease of any sort. It is the result of careful analysis of the political situation in the province of Manitoba, particulary following the election of 2011 which ended in the rout of the Progressive Conservative Party.

In a nutshell, there is no viable opposition to the NDP government in Manitoba, now or on the horizon. This has become a one-party state much as Alberta under the Conservatives. There's even a name for it---Kabuki Democracy. The system keeps the trappings of democracy but elections become a form of stylized drama with each party playing a defined role and the winner never in doubt.

The possibility of 40 years of NDP rule is not out of the question. Already the last time the Conservatives were in power was almost 13 years ago. That will be 16 years by the time the next election is called--- which the Tories have no hope of winning.

The Conservatives have only been going backwards since their loss in 1999 and show no sign they can reverse that trend. Almost a year of Pallister and their forward momentum is zero.

Our plan takes nerve. It's a gamble but, as they say, no guts, no glory. And it's the only glimmer of originality you will read, see or hear in Manitoba.

Every other single pundit in the province spouts the same tired formula---have a convention, elect a charismatic leader (they can't suggest who), present some exciting new ideas (they can't suggest what) and try again. If you like losing, that's a recipe for success.

Why not just put the idea out there? Why charge?

The Manitoba Conservatives spent $2 million on their 2011 campaign and achieved nothing. That's not chicken feed. The "professional" consultants and pollsters walked away with their pockets bulging with money without producing a single new seat. We are also professionals. We don't work for free. If winning an election has a value, then pay gladly the people with a winning idea.

The timing for The Black Rod Bolt has never been better. Events have moved in our favour faster than we ever expected a year ago. The conditions are perfect. Carpe diem, anyone?

Or are you too chicken?

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

MLA Bob Wilson went down on drug charges after RCMP hid vital info from defence

It's shaping up as the biggest news story in Manitoba in 2012. And the timing couldn't be more perfect.

On the eve of the resumption of the Manitoba Legislature, former MLA Robert Wilson has come face-to-face with the exoneration he's chased for more than 30 years, from the day he was arrested in 1979, to the day he was convicted in 1980, to the day he was expelled from the Legislature in 1981, stripped of his pay and pension.

And his honour. Above all, his honour.

For literally a generation, Bob Wilson, now 78 years old, has professed his innocence of the charges of conspiracy to import and traffic marijuana that destroyed his life.

He became the monomaniacal Captain Ahab of Manitoba jurisprudence, hunting his personal white whale--- Ian Jackson "Whitey" Macdonald, a former friend and drug dealer whose surprise visit one evening enmeshed Wilson in an endless nightmare of accusations, prison, shame and regret.

Wilson was arrested, went to trial, was convicted, appealed, lost, and wound up in prison serving a seven year stretch.

Macdonald was arrested, escaped under mysterious circumstances,and lived a long and fulfilled life with his wife at his side for three decades until U.S. Marshalls caught up with him two years ago.

Two years ago Wilson was over the moon, positive that his old pal Whitey would clear his name. Macdonald told reporters Wilson was innocent, but to get out from under the old charges he was still facing, he signed an agreed statement of facts for the court saying Wilson was guilty as charged.

He got 14 months in an old folks home in Winnipeg in a version of house arrest. Bob Wilson was crushed.

But, like Wile E. Coyote, Wilson pried himself out from under the boulder of despair, rearranged his bent-back limbs and started all over again. But lately his barrage of emails had become an incoherent melange of phrases and odd word pairings as if his brain couldn't focus enough to even form a whole sentence. He was losing hope.

And, then--- just like that--- everything changed again.

Macdonald's daughter turned up in Winnipeg to plead for his father's early release to live his final days with her mother in her new home in Pennsylvania. Macdonald, 73, has terminal cancer. He's betting Obamacare can do better for him than Canadian Medicare.

In support of her request, the daughter filed a letter with the court. It was the letter Bob Wilson has been waiting 30 years to see.
Dated March 9, 1979, the letter was addressed to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. It was signed by then-U.S. Customs Service Florida chief Michael Wewers.

It reads, in part: “Mr. MacDonald is a documented informant for the U.S. Customs Service and has provided reliable information in the area of large scale narcotics smuggling.”

"His movements in and outside the United States are necessary in the accomplishment of gathering information on narcotics and alien smuggling activities."

Wewers confirmed to CBC the next day that the letter was authentic.

The implications of the letter still haven't been grasped by the Winnipeg news media.

Wilson has been saying for literally decades that Whitey Macdonald was a government drug agent of some kind. Here's an excerpt of one of the many emails sent to The Black Rod in which he states this fact.

What he's saying is that on May 18, 1979, Macdonald and a companion, James Lowell, were stopped at the Winnipeg International Airport when marijuana was found in Lowell's bags. Macdonald identified himself as a drug agent and no charges were laid against either man. And, he says elsewhere, the matter was "sealed".

Note that this was barely two months after the Wewer letter was written. Wilson wasn't arrested for another four months.


The investigation, which had cost $2 million, had just been blown out of the water. They needed to justify the time and money. They needed a big fish, even if they had to create one.
And the biggest fish they could find was a sitting politician. One way or another he had to become Mr. Big., the money behind the dope smugglers.
The RCMP never informed Wilson or his lawyer that his "co-conspirator" was a certified American drug informant.

Did the prosecution know? If the RCMP kept the information from them at the time of the trial, that's one thing.

But they have no excuse for NOT KNOWING at the time of Wilson's appeals.

He was telling everyone and anyone he could that Whitey was a protected drug informant. The onus was on the Crown to confirm or denounce this allegation.

We can see now that the story was true. The Crown knew or should have known in 1979 or 1980 at the latest that Macdonald was not your ordinary drug smuggler. And what about that escape? There were questions even at the time that the story of how he just wandered away from his police escort seemed a bit fishy. More fishy even now.

As we said, the implications are huge. The RCMP deliberately withheld vital information from Wilson's defence. Suddenly those charges of RCMP perjury in the case take on a new urgency.

The Crown failed its onus to investigate Wilson's allegations about Macdonald.

The only conclusion left is that Bob Wilson was made the fall guy for a drug smuggling operation that was led by an American drug informant who couldn't be prosecuted.

Where are all the self-style humanitarians who could be found accusing police and prosecutors of malfeasance at the NDP mock-inquiries into alleged wrongful convictions. When convicted murderers were being freed on made-up evidence and paid millions, they were first to pat themselves on the back for their "investigative journalism".

Now that there's clear evidence that Manitoba prosecutors and RCMP might have deliberately hidden evidence to convict an innocent man, these "professional journalists" are MIA.

The Manitoba Legislature should be abuzz this week, not for the Throne Speech, but for the possibility that a former MLA may soon be in line for 30 years of back pay, pension accrual, and his lost honour.
But how soon is soon. Wilson is 78, well past the life expectancy of someone born in 1934. Macdonald is 73 and dying.

The Crown attorneys who sent Wilson to prison and their police witnesses are not getting younger.

If the NDP government is serious about wrongful convictions, it shouldn't be waiting on a federal process that's already meandered for two years. It should immediately start questioning its own former employees to get at the truth of, who framed Bob Wilson?

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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Winnipeg Firehalls Scandal by the numbers

The last time we looked at the Winnipeg Firehalls Scandal we demonstrated how the project degenerated progressively so that it went from:

- a one million dollar surplus on the first new fire station, then
a pair of big deficits on the next two,


a fourth and final station being built by a process that's completely out of control with:
-  no tender,
-  no contract,
-  no fixed budget,
-  no timeline
-  and no oversight.

Now for the bad news.

To justify city council approval to cover a cost overrun of at least $2.2 million on the firehall currently being built in St. James ( the last of the quartet okayed by council in 2009) the fire department submitted a "report". In it was a financial accounting of the project so far--- what was spent on which firehall and how it compared to the original budget.

We spent a week pouring over the numbers. Here, for the first time ever, is a detailed report of how the new firehalls were built.

If you thought you knew how city administrators spent your money, you're in for a big surprise.

The overall budget for the four new fire stations was $15.3 million. The city would borrow roughly $9.7 million from a federal stimulus/infrastructure program to add to approximately $5.3 million that had been (or would be) squirreled away from the 2006, 2008 and 2010 city budgets.
The money would be used to build four new replacement firehalls -- Station 27 (Sage Creek), Station 18 (Charleswood), Station 12 (River Heights) and Station 11 (St. James.)
Money was allocated to each new firehall project to cover construction, land, and "other" (presumably soft costs like lawyers, architects, etc.). The budget allocation for Sage Creek was $5 million; Charleswood, $3 million; River Heights, $3.17 millon; and St. James, $4.17 million.

The land where the old fire stations stood in River Heights and St. James was to be declared surplus and sold.

They budgeted $340,500 in revenue from those parcels of land to be applied to the overall budget ($170,000 for the new firehalls in River Heights and St. James respectively).

Note: it was belatedly revealed in August that Fire Chief Reid Douglas made a secret and verbal deal for a land swap with Shindico, the developer building all the new firehalls. The swap was to include the St. James and River Heights parcels plus land on Mulvey Avenue, in exchange for the land owned by Shindico on which the new River Heights station was built. The city later put a caveat on the River Heights station that required the city to pay $960,000 for the Shindico land in case there was no swap. That means the city valued the Mulvey land to be swapped at $620,000. (Today the deal was scrapped by Protection Committee - )

Construction of the Sage Creek firehall started in mid-July, 2011 and the station was opened in January, 2012. Time: six months.

They spent a shade more than $3 million on construction, meaning that after approved adjustments to the budget they saved $652,000. They also saved $358,000 on other expenses. All told they saved $1 milliion on the Sage Creek station.
Note: This is important. Reid Douglas said he treated the firehalls project as four smaller and separate projects because each had its own unique elements. This let him avoid telling city council who the builder was because he only needed to inform council what he was doing if the budget of a project exceeds $10 million.


The Sage Creek station had a surplus of one million dollars. This money had to go back to general revenues. It was not money that Douglas could use as a slush fund.

And, seeing as how he was treating each firehall as a separate project, it could not be used on any of the other firehalls without city council approval. 
That wasn't how he saw it, though.

The Charleswood and River Heights stations were built concurrently. They started in September, 2011 and finished at the end of March, 2012 (the deadline to qualify for stimulus money). Time: six months.

The bid for the Charleswood station came in more than half a million above the expected price. Plus they got hit by higher expenses (at least half to cover working over the winter). The bottom line was a budget shortfall of $661,000.

The construction of the River Heights station also cost more than expected ($245,000). That, plus the added costs of working over the winter, and the loss of $170,000 which was to come from the sale of surplus firehall land resulted in a budget shortfall of $614,000.

Together, the two firehalls cost $1.2 million more than budgeted.

Now, remember, all four new fire stations were separate projects. That means that the fire department should have gone to city council and asked separately for $661,000 to cover the shortfall on the Charleswood station and $614,000 to cover the shortfall on the River Heights station.

Instead, Reid Douglas applied the million dollar surplus on the Sage Creek station to the cost overruns on the other two suburban stations and in his report to the city's protection committee claimed a shortfall of only $264,000 on all three.

So when he needed to, to cover up that Shindico was the sole contractor, he claimed the budget for each project was under $10 million and he didn't have to notify city council.

But when it was convenient, he treated the projects as one so he could move money from whichever was in surplus to the others that were showing overruns.

If this happened on an Indian Reserve, the Taxpayers Federation would be up in arms and screaming for somebody to resign. But apparently, this is business as usual within the City of Winnipeg.

Remember that the city's top administrators, including Chief Financial Officer Mike Ruta, Chief Operating Officer Deepak Joshi, and Chief Administrative Officer Phil Sheegl have all declared publicly that Reid Douglas followed all the proper procedures and did everything by the book --- their book.

This brings us to the fourth and last firehall project -- the ultimate boondoggle, also approved by the city's top administrators.

Bear with us. We'll try to make sense out of this, although nobody is giving a straight story about anything to do with this project. And when they claim they are, they just raise more questions.

The contractor on the St. James station is Shindico. Only there is no contract. It seems that Reid Douglas just gave the project to Shindico without putting it out to tender or seeking other bids.

Add that to how hard he worked to keep Shindico's name away from city council and you've got a really, really big question that involves the words favoritism and cover-up.

Not to mention that Winnipeg's top administrators see nothing wrong with an untendered contract worth millions going to a company owned by a close friend of the mayor, especially the administrator who is also a close friend of the mayor. 
Nope, nothing to see here.
Shindico got a permit from the city in March, 2012 to start pouring the foundation for Station 11. Then, get this, four months later, in July, Fire Chief Reid Douglas "and Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service project manager Christine Friesen" appeared before Assiniboia community committee asking for approval to move the proposed fire station closer to Portage Avenue.

FOUR MONTHS LATER? The other firehalls were built in six months. What was going on here?
Douglas, and apparently "project manager" Christine Friesen, had been dicking around for four months after getting a permit to start pouring the foundation?

Do you think they could have negotiated a contract in those four months? A contact with a time deadline? And a price? And, maybe, an idea of what they were building?

Because, as it turns out, nobody can give a simple answer as to what they're building. A fire station with a museum? Without a museum? With a hazmat unit from St. Boniface? No, not from St. Boniface. A hazmat unit from the Maples? Uh, maybe. Or maybe just a training facility. Isn't this the sort of thing you sort out BEFORE you start construction?

Just as you might want to know how big a building you're building. Reid Douglas says now that it was always going to be 14,000 square feet. Except that the Winnipeg Free Press says documentation shows it started as a 10,000 sq.ft. project. And every print story we can find says it was going to be 12,000 sq. ft. and not one says 14,000 sq. ft.

So we have a project for a fire station and nobody knows for sure how big it's going to be, what's going to be in it, or when its supposed to be finished. Winnipeg's top administrators say this is the way business is done in this city. Maybe it's time for some new administrators. Maybe? Hell, no maybe about it.

Douglas told the Assiniboia community committee that moving the fire station closer to Portage Avenue would "increase visibility of the station, improve traffic sight lines and reduce the overall footprint of the station by about 600 square feet." Apparently during the two-hour meeting, there was no discussion that the station had grown to 14,000 square feet.

We do now know that one month later, on Aug. 9, 2012, Shindico informed Douglas that the estimated cost of the new Fire Station 11 had ballooned and could be as much as $2.3 million more than initially budgeted. Douglas says he told Ruta, who told him to go to city hall to get the extra money.  
Apparently Ruta wasn't the least big curious about why the cost was now 56 percent higher than predicted a year earlier. Or how the other projects were doing.

On budget? Not on budget? Isn't the financial officer in charge of how your money is spent?

In this case he apparently couldn't care less about an overrun of greater than $2 million.

Something else of interest happened in August, 2012. Shindico put the former St. James fire station land up for lease. Shindico did not own the land. It was part of the secret land swap Douglas had negotiated,though. Coincidence? Yeah, that's it. Coincidence.

But that coincidence was spotted by CBC which reported Shindico's odd listing. And though Shindico pulled it immediately, it opened the door on the scandal that's sweeping the city.

While reporters were scrambling to report the Shindico /old firehall land-lease story, the company was apparently hard at work on the new St.James station. Because, according to the report submitted to the city, by Sept. 9, 2012 the fire department had spent $858,000 on its new firehall. That's out of a budget of $4.1 million.

It looks like they poured the foundation at last.

But here's where the story get even more queer. Shindico was saying the project would now cost $6.5 million or $2.2 million more than the initial budget. Douglas dutifully went to Protection Committee seeking that extra money. He intimated, and Mayor Sam Katz echoed, the suggestion that Shindico was finishing the work at its own expense while waiting to be repaid by the city.

Katz said he has no issue with construction taking place without a contract.
"I think the private sector is certainly putting their faith in city hall," the mayor said. "My understanding is they had a contract award for the foundation and now they're acting in good faith."

Except that there should be $3.1 million in the kitty waiting to be spent.

Why would anybody say Shindico is working for free with the expectation of being repaid later? They are being paid by city taxpayers and won't need that additional $2.2 million for a while yet.  
Unless, ha ha, that $3 million has been spent somewhere and nobody is telling. Ha ha.
Katz wants the $2.2 million fast-tracked to Shindico. He says that would keep the budget from ballooning even further with winter costs. 
How's that? It took six months to build each of the other fire station. That means construction on the St. James station will carry on all winter in any event.
And costs will increase accordingly.

Contract? We don't need no stinking contract!

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Friday, November 02, 2012

Firehall Follies: Blowback. A swan song. Compare and Contrast.

The blowback came quickly.

Only two days after grilling Winnipeg's most powerful civil servant, who is also the mayor's best friend, about the botched construction of a new firehall, protection committee chair Paula Havixbeck found herself out on her ear.

Mayor Sam Katz replaced her as committee chairman by somebody he hopes is more compliant, Coun. Scott Fielding, in whose ward the new fire station is being built. Katz didn't even try to disguise his shuffle as anything less than retribution for embarassing his friend and Winnipeg CAO, Phil Sheegl.
"...(He) would not respond to questions about whether her criticism of the fire-paramedic station replacement program played a role in that decision," was the way the Winnipeg Free Press told it.

"Katz denied Havixbeck is being demoted, but did not answer questions on whether her criticism of a fire-paramedic station replacement program has played a role in the decision." said the Winnipeg Sun
And if you needed more proof of the pushback of the Save Sheegl crowd, the same day as Havixbeck was tossed from the protection committee post came word that the City of Winnipeg had decided not to advertise in the Jewish Post and News, a publication which just happened to call for Katz and Sheegl to resign.

The official reason is that the city is short of money. That would be

-  the same city where the mayor is pushing council to speed up paying his other friend and business partner $2.3 million for building a firehall without a contract to build the firehall;

- the same city where the mayor rammed through a motion to kickback $2.3 million in property taxes to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (which hasn't paid its tax bill for 3 years) the pet project of his friend Gail Asper;

-  the same city where the same mayor paid his friend David Asper $4 million for not building a football stadium.

At first glance, the city is short of money because Mayor Sam Katz has spent all of it on his friends.

Coun. Fielding, the mayor's handpicked replacement for Havixbeck, has his own credibility problem. Fielding is expected to toe the Katz party line that whatever missteps there were in the construction of a new firehall for St.James should be forgotten because the new facility will be such a wonderful addition to the city's infrastructure.

But what Fielding actually wants forgotten is how he failed to see how the firehall fiasco was taking place in front of his nose.

In the July 18 edition of the Canstar weekly The Metro, reporter Matt Prepost wrote that Fielding held a public meeting about the new firehall at the Viscount Gort hotel exactly one year earlier. At the time, Fielding accused the hotel owners of misleading the public "into believing the station was expanding in size...when the opposite was true."


We now know that immediately after city council approved a project to build four new firehalls throughout Winnipeg, then-deputy Fire Chief Reid Douglas unilaterally decided to build a 14,000 square foot fire station instead of the 10,500 square foot station everyone thought was in the works. The Viscount Gort was right and Fielding was wrong.

Somebody owes somebody an apology.

Instead of focusing on the Save Sheegl counterattack by Mayor Sam Katz, Winnipeg's press corps was diverted by the resignation from Executive Policy Committee by Coun. Justin Swandel.

Swandel, who had become Katz's only ally on the committee in the wake of the firehalls scandal, claimed he was leaving because of principle. The committee, he declared, had become dysfunctional because the other councillors on it "are inexperienced, disloyal, self-serving, and lacking in leadership skills" summarized the CBC.

A close reading of his comments to the press shows that Swandel left because he had become the odd man out who quit in a huff because he couldn't sway his colleagues.

"I don't agree with … what some of those people have done. I don't believe in publicly trying to destroy people, to cause harm to people," he said to the CBC.

Translation: he was against questioning Fire Chief Reid Douglas and CAO Phil Sheegl about the St.James fire station fisasco. He just doesn't believe the public has a right to know who is responsible for the screwup that's already costing the city $2.5 million in construction overruns with unknown more to come.

What's gone unremarked is that Swandel's hissy fit marks his swan song on council.

Swandel was once touted as a candidate for mayor. But he's demonstrated he is so self-centred that if he can't get his own way, he quits.

If he can't work with EPC now, how can he profess to work with the committee if he became mayor? Does he envisage a wholesale replacement of councillors at city hall?

The most likely scenario is that the majority will be reelected which means he would be working with the very people he just declared he can't work with and who he has now insulted as disloyal and lacking.

Swandel's influence on council has diminished since the day he attacked anyone who dared to challenge his support of the CMHR as mentally disordered.

Insulting the majority of Winnipegers is not a tactic to win friends on council.

The City of Winnipeg has a contract with the company Emterra to pick up garbage throughout the city.
The City of Winnipeg has no contract with the company Shindico Realty to build a firehall in St.James.

Emterra has been doing the job for a month and has run into some problems.
Shindico has been building a fire station in St. James for seven months and has run out of money to finish it.

Mayor Sam Katz is threatening financial penalties against Emterra for failing to live up to its contract.
Mayor Sam Katz wants to throw more money Shindico's way even though city councillors can't get answers to why the cost of the firehall is way over budget, not that anybody knows what the budget is anymore because there is no contract with Shindico.

Katz wants to give Emterra less money.
Katz wants to give Shindico more money.

Katz demands answers from Emterra.
Shindico doesn't have to cough up any answers.

In fact, Katz is punishing anyone asking questions about Shindico's uncontracted work on the St. James firehall.

What's wrong with this picture?

And speaking of pictures, the big picture of the firehall debacle is not pretty at all.

In 2010, City Council approved a plan to build four new fire stations. The $15.3 million cost was to be covered by a $9.7 million loan from a federal stimulus/infrastructure program and the rest from money squirreled away in 3 years of city budgets. The province had a couple of million to kick in, too.

Then-deputy fire chief Reid Douglas was in charge of the building project. He decided to divide the big project into four separate little projects because the details of each new fire station were just different enough. Just by coincidence, one company, Shindico Realty, wound up building all four. Sort of.

The first new station was built in Sage Creek and, wonder of wonders, came in at a million dollars under budget. Yes, you read that right. A million dollars on a budget of $3 million. Holy hannah.

Did they have a parade? Set off fireworks? Issue a press release?
No. They didn't mention it to anyone. That's funny, isn't it.
The second new station was built in Charleswood. It came in at a bit more than $600,000 over budget, or roughly a third more than expected. Now, since the four firehalls were separate projects, this overrun couldn't be subtracted from the million dollar surplus on the Sage Creek firehall. 
Did Douglas tell anyone about this cost overrun? We don't know.

The third new station went up in River Heights. This is the one built on private land. This project came in at well over $600,000 over budget. And that's not counting the value of the land its built on.

Douglas said he made a verbal agreement with Shindico for a land swap which traded the land the River Heights station stands on in exchange for three parcels of surplus city land. But city council has never declared those parcels surplus.
Not only that, nobody is sure the value of the land being swapped is equal. Shindico was getting cold feet on the deal and early this year the city put a caveat on the firehall land saying it agreed to pay Shindico $960,000 if there was no land swap.

If we have to pay for the land, the cost overrun will be $1.5 million, almost half the projected budget.

A simple construction job turned into a morass of verbal agreements, written agreements and questioned agreements, and it's nowhere near over.

The fourth and last of the new firehalls was to go into St. James. It has been a total debacle.

There is no contract for construction, although Shindico is building the fire station and expecting the city to pay for it. Foundation work started in March, seven months ago. In the ensuing seven months, no contract was been signed. Nobody can explain why.

In August, the builder allegedly approached Reid Douglas and told him the cost of the project was expected to be as much as $2.5 million more than projected. That would mean an overrun of more than 50 percent. City councillors have since tried to determine why the cost went up so much, without getting any answers.

What we know is Shindico just kept on building after the foundation was poured. It looks like we'll have one fire station on land the city doesn't own and one privately-owned fire station on publicly owned land.

How did this happen? Nobody will say.

We could ask the project manager. In a July 18 story in the Metro and a July 10 story in the Winnipeg Free Press that person was identified as "Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service project manager Christine Friesen."

But, since, the official story from the fire department is that she was not the project manager even when she was being identified as the project manager.

No contract. No answers. A project manager who isn't. And a big bill.

That's the firehall scandal in a frame.

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