'We've left them in limbo': official warned about keeping property owners in dark about potential loss of land

City employees raised red flags about Winnipeg's failure to inform property owners they could lose land to a freeway months before those residents said they were surprised by the plans.

City employees discussed need to go public about Sterling Lyon Parkway months before controversy erupted

The Sterling Lyon Parkway extension is on hold and facing an audit. Months before the plans emerged, officials warned they should be made public. (CBC)

City employees raised red flags about Winnipeg's failure to inform property owners they could lose land to a freeway months before those residents said they were surprised by the plans.

Internal emails obtained by CBC News under freedom-of-information legislation reveal city staff responsible for transportation engineering and communications expressed frustrations and concerns in March 2017 about their inability to tell property owners south of Wilkes Avenue about a proposal to extend Sterling Lyon Parkway through their neighbourhood.

In October 2017, Winnipeg chief administrative officer Doug McNeil and Charleswood-Tuxedo-Whyte Ridge Coun. Marty Morantz said they were surprised to learn the public works department was planning a route that differed from three options presented to the public in January 2016.

Winnipeg chief administrative officer Doug McNeil told council's public works committee on Oct. 31 that he was surprised by the freeway route. (CBC)

A briefing note obtained by CBC News in December reveals former Winnipeg public works director Lester Deane urged McNeil to go public with the plans in November 2016 and also sent the CAO drawings of the proposed route and prospective public-engagement plans.

McNeil said in December he did not read the attachments but confirmed he placed the project on hold.

The new batch of emails obtained by CBC News shows in the ensuing months that former Sterling Lyon Parkway project manager Scott Suderman and Winnipeg communications officer Michelle Finley continued to warn of the consequences of continuing to keep residents in the dark while the project was on hold.

"The significant issue on our end is that we had resources at the time to complete the work before it was put on hold," Suderman told Finley and three other city employees via email on March 10, 2017.

"Also we were instructed not to consult with the public further on this project until instructed to do so. The councillor is aware of this, and is aware the project is on hold."
City employees raised red flags about Winnipeg's failure to inform property owners they could lose land to a freeway months before those residents said they were surprised by the plans. 2:07

In response, Finley wondered whether the public was ever told planning for the Sterling Lyon Parkway extension was placed on hold.

"The issue I think that the most vocal stakeholders will have is that for some of them, their properties have been identified as needing to be acquired. We've left them in limbo and it is causing them some concern," she wrote back to the group.

"I imagine none of them could sell at this point and some may be wondering what the next step is. The webpage doesn't indicate the project is on hold."

Emails also show Finley, Winnipeg public engagement manager Morgan Vespa and communications director Felicia Wiltshire sought direction from McNeil following a meeting that was supposed to take place with Deane early in the year.

Winnipeg communications manager David Driedger said that meeting did take place before Deane left the city, in May 2017.

Deane told CBC News in December he could not recall discussing the Sterling Lyon Parkway extension with McNeil after he sent the CAO his briefing note in November 2016.

Former Winnipeg public works director Lester Deane, who sent Doug McNeil a briefing note about the parkway extension in November 2016, said the CAO's claim he wasn't aware of the final alignment 'strains credibility.' (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Wilkes South residents first learned of the proposed freeway route in September, when the province posted the plans online in response to an environmental assessment requested by consulting firm WSP. 

The publication triggered a series of public meetings in October, after which residents grew upset and eventually forced city hall to place the project on hold.

Loudoun Road resident David Ames said he is not certain whether senior city officials knew about the plans all along or were not doing their jobs.

"This administration, which was elected under this [desire for] transparency and clarity and openness has been anything but that," Ames said Thursday in a telephone interview.

Loudoun Road resident David Ames said he is not certain whether officials knew all along about the route or weren't doing their jobs. (John Einarson/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg, however, said the discussion involving Suderman and Finley in March 2017 does not demonstrate officials made any effort to highlight the proposed route for the Sterling Lyon Parkway extension differed from options presented to the public the previous year.

"We acknowledge that meetings were held to discuss the project; however, we maintain that there was no identification of a material change from what was originally proposed during public-engagement sessions in 2016, until October 2017," Driedger said in a statement on Thursday.

Morantz has pledged to call an audit into the Sterling Lyon Parkway extension. That call is expected to be made at executive policy committee on Jan. 17.

McNeil is also expected to undergo a performance review by a panel of city councillors. Council's six-member unofficial opposition, led by South Winnipeg-St. Norbert Coun. Janice Lukes, wants to suspend the CAO with pay.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Before joining CBC Manitoba, Bartley Kives spent most of his career in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, covering politics, music, food, the environment and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.