Fire hall land swap to undergo external review

A controversial land swap involving several Winnipeg fire stations will be subject to an outside review.
Mayor Sam Katz talks about the controversial land swap review 1:48

A controversial land swap involving several Winnipeg fire stations will be subject to an outside review.

Mayor Sam Katz confirmed Monday that an internal review wouldn't go far enough and he has accepted a recommendation from city auditor Brian Whiteside to launch an external audit of the deal.

"I think we all want to know the answers to the questions. And there are many questions," he said, promising to find out how the contracts for the fire halls were awarded, who was responsible, and why city councillors were completely in the dark about what was going on.

Whiteside will hire "external industry experts, both to expedite the review and draw upon expertise not generally found within audit departments," a release from the city stated.

It comes following weeks of questions about a deal with property developer Shindico to swap two abandoned fire halls and some land in exchange for property on Taylor Avenue where a new fire station has already been built.

The city says the outside review will look at the deal and its value to city taxpayers, as well as recommend any improvements and "any disciplinary actions that might need to be taken."

"There has been representation from our city staff saying they followed the process but there are questions requiring answering and that's what we are going to get," Katz said.

"It's very difficult to comprehend how we built a fire paramedic station, which is a great facility, but on land we don't own."

St. James Coun. Scott Fielding, a member of the executive policy committee, says getting outside help in looking at the deal is a good idea.

"It makes sense to have someone independent take a look at some of the decisions that were made and how the processes happened and, most importantly, does it make sense for taxpayers?" he told CBC News on Monday.

Details of the land swap began to emerge after Shindico prematurely advertised a lease on one of the former fire halls, located on Grosvenor Avenue.

Fire Chief Reid Douglas has said he personally negotiated the land swap with Shindico, adding that he believes he has brokered a good deal for taxpayers.

Earlier this month, Katz ordered a financial review of the land deal, despite repeated assurances from city officials — including the mayor himself — that it followed all proper procedures.

Coun. Jenny Gerbasi has been calling for an external review of the deal from the start. And she thinks once the external review is done there should be an audit of real estate deals going back at least five years.

"It's going to take a lot of resources, and if the audit department doesn't have the resources then they need to go outside even of that to do it that's fine," she said.

"I mean, we have to get to the bottom of it now, it's such a mess."

Gerbasi hopes the audit will perhaps lead to changes in the way future deals are done by the city.