Some Winnipeg city councillors are questioning the firing of fire chief Reid Douglas, with one suggesting a possible coverup in advance of an audit report, but Mayor Sam Katz says he doesn't know the reasons behind Douglas's dismissal.
On Wednesday, City of Winnipeg chief operating officer Deepak Joshi said in an email to city council that Douglas was no longer employed by the city, effective immediately.
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The email did not explain why.
'It's not astute to comment on something if you don't know all the information, and I don't know all the information, so I'm not commenting.' - Mayor Sam Katz
Douglas, who was named chief two years ago, had been embroiled in controversy over a unusual land swap and sale of fire halls.
His dismissal comes shortly before the anticipated release of a detailed audit report on the land swap deal. It is expected to come out in the next week and a half.
"Why we would terminate the fire chief a week before the audit's released? To me, it smacks of some kind of coverup," St. Boniface Coun. Dan Vandal said Thursday.
Vandal said Douglas should have been kept on staff to answer questions coming from the audit.
Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Paula Havixbeck said the timing of Douglas's firing is suspicious, given the release of the audit report is imminent.
"It just seems peculiar to me that now the fire chief is mysteriously gone, within a matter or days, or perhaps even a week or two of this report being released," she said.
St. James-Brooklands Coun. Scott Fielding also echoed Vandal's and Havixbeck's comments.
"I think it's somewhat inappropriate to … take actions against him a week and a half before, you know, a obviously high-profile audit is supposed to come out," he said.
"The timing of his departure is suspect, to say the least, in my opinion."
Both Havixbeck and Fielding said the decision does nothing to improve the public's opinion of city hall.
"You know what else?" added Havixbeck. "It [the email to councillors] didn't even say we wish him well. He's been a firefighter for 39 years, you know."
Mayor not passing judgment
Katz said the firing of Douglas wasn't his decision to make and as such, he doesn't know the reason for it and won't pass judgment.
"It's not astute to comment on something if you don't know all the information and I don't know all the information, so I'm not commenting," he said.
The timing, though, wasn't great, he added.
"From the departments — human resources, et cetera — they may not take that stuff [the timing before an audit] into consideration. They make decisions on what's best, so there's two different perspectives," he said.
"From a political [perspective], no it's not perfect."
Last November, city council killed a secretive deal that would have seen Shindico, a local property development company, exchange land on Taylor Avenue for three other city properties.
As part of the swap, arranged by Douglas and Shindico, land on Taylor Avenue was to be swapped for two fire stations that had been declared surplus as well as a parcel of land on Mulvey Avenue.
The deal, however, didn't follow proper procedures and was never approved by city council. By the time the swap was uncovered, the city had already allowed the Fire Paramedic Service to build a new station on the Taylor property, even though Shindico still owned the land.
The city is now working to complete a deal to purchased the Taylor Avenue land.
Union issues statement
On Wednesday afternoon the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg issued a statement on Douglas’ termination.
“We are not aware of the reasons for this termination at this time,” the statement said.
“Fire Chief Reid Douglas has over 35 years with the Winnipeg fire department, ranging from being a firefighter to being the fire chief. He has served the citizens of this great city and has risked his life in fires.”
Acting chief Bill Clark will fill the role going forward.
Already on Clark's plate is working with the firefighters union on how to curb skyrocketing overtime costs.