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 adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

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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: black_rod_usher@yahoo.com

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Black Rod's Newsmaker of the Year 2012. The man who said No




The Shadow has a higher public profile than he does.

You couldn't pick him out of a line-up.  If his picture has ever been posted anywhere, let us know.

What is known is that he's got bigger cojones than anyone at City Hall.  This year he stared down the mayor of Winnipeg and the mayor's closest friend and ally,the city's chief administrative officer, who happens to be the most powerful man in city government.

By the time he got through with them, they were sitting in council chambers like frightened schoolboys in the principal's office as they watched their power to intimidate city councillors evaporate into thin air.

And because of him, those councillors developed some backbone for the first time in living memory and showed they could take the reins of government away from unelected administrators if they wanted.

The Black Rod's Newsmaker of the Year---city auditor Brian Whiteside.

Way back as far as last January, Whiteside gave a warning that things were going to be different at City Hall from now on.

Two years earlier, in 2010, city administrators rammed through a bicycle pathway along Assiniboine Avenue following a sham public consultation process. 

They met with the bike lobby to plan the project, failed to talk to anyone who lived or worked in the area who might oppose the plan, and avoided in their public notices mentioning that the bike path would eliminate parking along Assiniboine. 

One citizen, blogger Graham Hnatiuk (www.progressivewinnipeg.blogspot.com), was so incensed at the obviously phony public consultation that he decided to do something about it.  He would go to the city auditor with a formal complaint against the company hired to do the consultations and insist the city not pay them for doing an inadequate job. 

Hnatiuk phoned 311 to file his complaint.  To his surprise, he discovered his complaint had been intercepted by someone and diverted from the auditor to the city administrator who was in charge of building bike paths---to be deep-sixed.  When he insisted the complaint be delivered to the auditor, a 311 supervisor told him that the auditor did not consider complaints from citizens.  


The city's own  website states:
"The CAO has added the role of Chief Performance Officer to the position of City Auditor. The mandate of the department with the addition of the Chief Performance Officer role is as follows: 

To examine problem areas, within the capabilities of the Audit Department, which are brought to the Auditors attention by taxpayers, department heads, employees, Council, Standing Committees of Council, members of Council and the CAO."

You can see today why they were so anxious to keep Hnatiuk's complaint away from the auditor. Brian Whiteside was appointed city auditor in 2009, but before taking a job with the city in 1997, he had worked for the Office of the Provincial Auditor in---wait for it---the Value for Money Audit Division.

Hnatiuk eventually got his complaint to the attention of Brian Whiteshide with the help of his city councillor, Jeff Browaty. And in January of this year, Whiteside's audit report was delivered to a city committee.  

In it, he completely validated Hnatiuk's complaint.  The public consultation process had been a total farce, he concluded.

Mayor Sam Katz and his pal CAO Phil Sheegl must have laughed themselves silly. Who cares about an audit report about a project that was completed two years ago? And who cares about that powerless pissant who complained?

Well, before the year was out, the joke was on Katz and Sheegl and they weren't laughing anymore.  In fact, they were on tenterhooks waiting for Brian Whiteside's next audit reports.

Within eight months, a series of scandals carpetbombed City Hall, and at the heart of each of them were Katz and Sheegl.

* Shindico, the construction company owned by Katz's partner in the Winnipeg Goldeyes, was caught marketing a lease on city land it didn't own and which hadn't even been declared surplus by the city.

* That land turned out to be part of a secret land swap negotiated by Fire Chief Reid Douglas which was going to be submitted to council to rubber stamp after, and only after, a new fire station was built and operating on land owned by Shindico.

* It turned out that the land swap was, in turn,  part of a project to build four new fire halls which Douglas had divided into four separate projects to keep each of their budgets under the limit at which he had to inform city councillors, and to keep secret the contractor on each of the four projects---Shindico.

* Sheegl, who enjoyed the hospitality of Shindico to watch Winnipeg Jets hockey, said he had been remotely aware ("at 50,000 feet") of the fire hall land swap, without explaining further. He arranged an unprecedented news conference of six city officials to declare the fire hall projects were all done properly, even if city councillors were kept in the dark.

* Sam Katz acquired a million-dollar house in Arizona from the Chief Financial Officer of Shindico and the only documented exchange of money was $10. Katz says he paid a million dollars cash for the house, but refuses to this day to say when the payment was made or to discuss the purchase in any way. The written record shows the tax bill had been sent to his home in Winnipeg  though the house was allegedly owned by the Shindico official.

* Sheegl sold Katz a defunct company he owned in Arizona for $1, saving the mayor $3000 or $4000 in lawyer's fees if he was to set one up himself. Shindico was not involved.

* Council was informed that the fourth and final fire station being built by Shindico was $2.2 million over budget and was being constructed with no tender, no contract, no fixed budget, and no timeline.  You could obviously add "and no oversight".

After refusing to contemplate any investigation of the fire hall deals, Katz, shaken by the string of revelations, finally announced in early September that a financial review would be conducted by -- wait for it -- Phil Sheegl and city financial officer Mike Ruta, both men who had already declared everything had been done by the book.  

The review was supposed to be handed to the city auditor, who, we suspect was supposed to check the arithmetic and then sign off on it.

But something completely unexpected happened.

He said no.

Nobody says No to Phil Sheegl. Brian Whiteside said No.

The mayor was in New York City on the Friday the financial review was supposed to be submitted. We can only imagine the look on his face when he got word that Whiteside wasn't playing ball.

Katz flew back to Winnipeg toute suite. On Monday, he issued a statement with just the proper spin.  He, the mayor, had ordered an audit of the land swap deal---on the recommendation of the city auditor, he declared.  The same audit he had previously refused to order.

Whiteside would lead the process, said Katz, but he could hire "outside agencies" if he didn't have the resources or expertise.  That's all. Nothing to see here. Move along.

But city councillors wouldn't.  They smelled blood.  Brian Whiteside had sparked a revolution on the floor of city council by refusing Sheegl's whitewash review.

A motion was made to audit all of the city's real estate transactions, going back as far as 5 years if the auditor felt it necessary.  A forlorn Sam Katz had to stand up in public and vote in favour of the audit that he had opposed for weeks, and which had his buddies Phil Sheegl and Sandy Shindleman in its sights.

Nobody knows when these audits will be completed. But everybody knows that Katz and Sheegl won't be throwing their weight around for a long, long time.  
Brian Whiteside has done more than anyone to foster democracy, transparency, and civic responsibility in Winnipeg in 2012.  For that, he is our Newsmaker of the Year.

And in that positive spirit, we wish A Happy New Year to:

Graham Hnatiuk, the blogger who demonstrated that sometimes the good guys win. He wouldn't put up with incompetence, arrogance and condescension, and he wouldn't give up. A very dangerous man.

Bob Wilson, who's fought a lonely battle for exoneration for 32 years and who ends the year with a rare victory.  Whitey Macdonald, his alleged co-conspirator in the drug smuggling ring that Wilson was convicted of funding, was indeed a government-protected drug agent just as Wilson has claimed since 1980.

James Jewell, retired police officer, whose blog is a never-ending spring of insight and commentary on crime-fighting from someone who has been in the front lines and knows what he's talking about

James Turner, Winnipeg Sun reporter, whose blog is must-read. There's more background information in a single Turner blog about a news story he's covered than in an entire Saturday Wpg. Free Press. And no paywall.

Mark Stobbe, who deserves a big apology from Manitoba Justice for his wrongful prosecution on allegations that he murdered his wife.  They put him and his family through 12 years of hell, ruining his career and tarnishing his reputation without a shred of evidence against him. Prosecuting an innocent man is so much easier than going after native street gangs.

* Krista Erickson, who has become a journalism legend with her spirited interview on Sun TV of dancer Margie Gillis, that paragon of government largess. Despite a record 6676 complaints about her interview, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled this year that her interview  might have been controversial, but in a way that was "essential to the maintenance of democratic institutions."  Just think, we owe the health of our democracy to Krista E.

Stefanie Cutrona, a first-year student in Red River College's Creative Communications program, who was torn to shreds for telling the truth -- she loves the news but she doesn't read the newspaper, she gets her info online. Them's fighting words to MSM dinosaurs. Just ask Krista.

Donny Benham, the losing Green Party candidate in Fort Whyte byelection, who also did the unthinkable---he floated an idea during an election campaign.  Benham attacked the culture of entitlement that sees politicians quit soon after winning their seats, forcing expensive byelections, politicians like former P.C. leader Hugh McFadyen. Instead of exploring this and other ideas tossed out during the byelection, Winnipeg Free Press politics reporter Bruce Owen announced the byelection bored him so he was going to write about underground tunnels instead.

Pierre Poutine, Canada's most wanted man. The entire Ottawa press gallery has been beating the bushes trying to find the person who wears the pseudonym Pierre Poutine so they can expose his connections to the Harper government and so prove the defeat of their beloved Liberal Party was due to dirty tricks.  Instead they were forced to report that the only party caught misusing robocalls was the Liberal Party of Canada, and the only person uncovered using a pseudonym to smear political opponents was a member of the Liberal Party of Canada. Burn.

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