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

Monday, December 30, 2013

Newsmaker of the Year 2013. Hint: he's like Hercules.


He took down the most powerful man in Winnipeg.

He ripped away the curtain hiding a corrupt culture of favoritism and untendered contracts worth millions of dollars being handed out secretly by the city's most senior civil servants.

He exposed the year-long cover-up conducted by the mayor and  Winnipeg's top administrators.

He's been like Hercules cleaning the Augean Stables, and, like Hercules, he has a long list of tasks to accomplish still.

The Black Rod's Newsmaker of the Year --- for the second year in a row --- is Winnipeg auditor Brian Whiteside.

Last year, Whiteside was a shoo-in for his courage in standing up to Chief Administrative Officer Phil Sheegl and his minions. They prepared a nice whitewash report clearing Sheegl of any impropriety in the secret delivery of contracts for four new firehalls to Shindico, the company owned by Mayor Sam Katz's palsy walsy for many a year.  They expected Whiteside to passively sign on, but discovered he preferred a full and official audit of the project, something Katz had rejected outright --- until Whiteside forced his hand.

By year's end Katz and Sheegl had had the arrogance kicked out of them and they were meek as mice when city council voted to fund that audit, and another one of city construction projects for the past five years at least.

Well, the firehalls audit (done by an outside Ontario firm, but commissioned and submitted by Whiteside) was released in October with a bang.  But by then Sheegl had quietly resigned --- before the tar could be heated and the rail delivered.

Sheegl, most people don't know, was literally more powerful than the mayor. He, not the mayor, could hire and fire every civic employee, except the city clerk, chief financial officer---and the city auditor; he alone hired the Chief of Police, and he had the authority to solely approve  construction contracts up to a value of $10 million.  Not to mention he was the mayor's best friend and could count on Katz backing him up 100 percent in any dispute --- or challenge by an underling.

But he ran for the hills because he knew his jig was up once the public got a look at that audit. Not even the mayor could help him. In fact, the mayor's own credibility died with Sheegl's shame.

The firehalls debacle was the city story of the year, thanks to auditor Whiteside. But it's only the beginning of the end for the old regime.  Hot on the heels of the firehalls audit, Sheegl was being blamed by city councillors for the even-greater mismanagement of the project to turn the old downtown post office into a new police headquarters. Tens of millions of dollars were lost in that fiasco. And the public was waiting with trepidation for Whiteside's next audit---of contruction projects under Sheegl's watch---which could be out as early as January, 2014.

Katz and his supporters are desperately fighting back, installing Deepark Joshi, Sheegl's co-conspirator in the audit cover-up as the acting CAO, and voting down another audit into the post office boondoggle, hiding as long as possible from the public the answer to who knew what  when.

It's a case of we hang together or we hang separately.  The December Probe poll showing Katz's bedrock support at 9 percent should fortell how this story plays out.

For that reason, The Black Rod is handing out its first ever Newsmaker of the Year runner-up award.  That award goes to City Councillor Paula Havixbeck.

She was the first one at City Hall to defy the Katz-and-Sheegl council cabal. When she couldn't get straight answers about the Firehalls fiasco she ordered Sheegl and his shadow, then Chief Operating Officer Deepak Joshi to appear before council's Protection Committee which she chaired. They stonewalled her, and Katz struck back by removing her from his executive policy committee and replacing her with someone he could control, Coun. Brian Mayes.

But in 2013, Havixbeck refused to be silenced. She kept asking pointed questions, and the mayor and his supporters kept refusing to answer.  Havixbeck couldn't even get an answer to the simplest question---how many people are on the city payroll?

Sam Katz is terrified of Paula Havixbeck.  You only have to watch city council question period to see that.  Katz refuses to answer any of her questions. He responds with condescension and open contempt. He wants to marginalize her, but he only demonstrates how much he's scared.

In 2012 we wrote "Brian Whiteside has done more than anyone to foster democracy, transparency, and civic responsibility in Winnipeg..."  In 2013 we second that opinion, but this year we can't overlook the dogged pursuit of truth by a city councillor who is unrelenting despite all the roadblocks thrown in her path by the mayor and his administration.  Anyone with that much power to make 'em shake in their boots deserves recognition and applause.

On that positive note,  we wish A Happy New Year to:

Samantha Hill. Winnipeg's own reached the top of the theatre mountain this year, taking the female lead in the Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera. She was magnificent at the Tony Awards in June where she performed the showstopper 'Music of the Night' for 7.2 million television viewers.

* Graham Lane. As the former chairman of the Public Utilities Board he knows the numbers, and the games that Manitoba Hydro is playing with them. Now that he's retired and writing a weekly column for the Winnipeg Free Press he can bring the facts to the public on how Hydro's grandiose expansion plans risk bankrupting the utility and the province. Hydro hates him.

* Harry Bakema. The latest victim of the NDP's criminal abuse of the justice system for political purposes.
* Mike O'Shaughnessy. If somebody had listened to his early warnings of problems with city construction projects we might have saved scores of millions of dollars.

* A Person In A Position To Know. He raised the first alarm about cost overruns at the new football stadium.  It took weeks for the professional reporters to catch on.

* Bethany Jilliard and Tom McCamus, who brought Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler to life in MTC's risky production of Gone With The Wind. Niki Landau, who wrote the book. Stephen Schipper, who took the leap into the unknown. More, please.

* Lindor Reynolds. God bless.

* Gordon Warren, who flies too close to the sun for his own good oft times. He was the subject of unrestricted namecalling when he put up posters calling for an investigation of Mayor Sam Katz and his friends. Now that the results of those investigations are rolling out, the namecallers have been struck dumb. But we haven't, and we'll have more in the days to come.

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