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 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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