Manitoba·Analysis

Why Brian Pallister's efforts to clear the air in Winnipeg's property department may only muddy the waters

Developers may be right to claim the City of Winnipeg's planning, property and development department is dysfunctional. An anonymous, evidence-free review may do little to help their cause, aside from publicizing it.

Permits take forever, approvals can be quixotic, but an evidence-free review may not spur change at city hall

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says the review's use of anonymous sources is no different than the way journalists use them. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

If you talk to anyone who's ever contacted the City of Winnipeg's planning, property and development department, you're bound to hear legitimate complaints.

The speed at which the city processes development applications can be slow to the point of glacial. The number of inspections required to open a business can be detrimental to the financial health of entrepreneurs with less money in the bank than Jeff Bezos.

The series of regulatory hoops a developer has to navigate can frustrate anyone who isn't blessed with a Lake Winnipeg-sized pool of patience.

These issues are not secrets. Several Winnipeg mayors have tried and failed to address them, although former mayor Sam Katz, in one of his most successful legacies, illuminated part of the bureaucratic mess with his Red Tape Commission in 2005.

This is why a planning, zoning and permitting review published by Manitoba's treasury board secretariat on Tuesday is such a head scratcher.

The 200-page document broadly concludes the City of Winnipeg's planning, property and development department is dysfunctional. This is unsurprising.

What's unusual is how the review reaches this conclusion: Through the use of entirely anonymous sources, whose opinions are quoted liberally without any effort taken to substantiate them or even flesh them out.

The review calls the slow pace of development at the Parker lands in Fort Garry a lost opportunity for the city and province. (Submitted by Rae Bridgman)

By their own admission, the public servants at the treasury board secretariat spoke to 50 people and simply repeated what those people said, including highly plausible claims that complainers and whistleblowers are treated poorly or even vindictively by the city.

These provincial officials made it very clear they made no effort to corroborate those claims. Simply placing the information in the public sphere was important, in order to ensure Manitoba is not missing out on economic opportunities in Winnipeg, the review's unnamed authors say of the words of their unnamed sources.

"While these quotations represent anecdotes rather than 'real evidence,' they reflect how negatively potential investors view the current development environment within Winnipeg," the review states.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister argued this methodology is no different than the way a reporter withholds the identity of a source.

"It's given people the opportunity in some cases, perhaps, to vent," the premier said of the report, "but let's now take a look at whether that venting is legitimate and there's something we can do about it."

Not all reviews are created equal

Journalists, however, do not use anonymous sources in this manner. If a journalist investigated the same material, the objective claims — that is, statements of fact — would have to be corroborated. As well, the subjects of the report would have to be given an opportunity to respond, within a reasonable timeframe to boot.

In all but the rarest of journalistic occasions, any anonymous opinions unearthed by an investigation would remain unpublished. Journalists are supposed to use anonymous sources to reveal facts, not opinions.

Likewise, if an actual auditor conducted a review of the same material, objective claims would be investigated and the targets of any complaints would be granted a chance to comment. Unlike journalists, auditors can sometimes compel the subjects of their complaints to comment.

The review published on Tuesday does not benefit from the fairness employed by a responsible journalist or the methodological rigour displayed by an auditor.

Rather, the review was prepared in a matter of weeks before it reached a broad conclusion that is, paradoxically, highly plausible but unsupported by its own methodology.

Political cover for city hall

This could be problematic, as the unorthodox methodology could provide the City of Winnipeg with enough political cover to avoid taking any action.

For every reasoned statement within the document — for instance, the observation that properties are inspected inconsistently between jurisdictions and even within the same jurisdiction — there are comments that seem outside the scope of the exercise.

For example, the review takes issue with the city's financial reliance on utility dividends, using water and waste revenue, without mentioning the province relies on the same financial practice by drawing cash from Manitoba Hydro.

The review suggests companies on the scale of Amazon avoided investing in Winnipeg without providing any specifics as to what the city did to scare a tech giant away.

The review also presents zero evidence for a bombshell allegation: That city officials took actions that prevented the province from expanding schools or creating new daycare spaces.

Just as curiously, the review singles out two Winnipeg properties as suffering at the city's hands: the former Canad Inns Stadium site, which is owned by a partnership between Shindico Realty and Cadillac Fairview; and the Parker lands, which is owned by developer Andrew Marquess.

Both properties were the subject of a 2014 Winnipeg real-estate management review that led, in part, to city council requesting the province to call an inquiry into the construction and real-estate scandals that plagued city hall during the Katz years.

The review claims the city refused to advance development opportunities at the former Canad Inns Stadium site. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

The 2014 review, conducted by consulting firm EY, noted the city provided one potential Canad Inns Stadium buyer with the site plans four months before it entertained offers to develop the land in 2012. The city also provided one potential buyer with a copy of the expression-of-interest document before it was issued, EY concluded.

The same review also looked at the Parker land swap, a 2009 deal that saw the city exchange 24 hectares of unserviced land in Fort Garry for 3.6 hectares of serviced Fort Rouge land owned by Marquess.

EY concluded the Parker land "was not inspected" or properly appraised prior to the swap. It also concluded city appraisers described their valuations of the land as a "rush job" because "time constraints were not reasonable to permit a proper investigation and analysis."

These are among dozens of concrete allegations about Winnipeg development that have never been fully investigated or explained — and they have nothing to do with the Winnipeg police headquarters investigation that's been underway by the RCMP since 2014.

Pallister often cites that RCMP investigation as the reason the province will not call an inquiry into what happened at city hall. 

Now, the premier is lauding an internal land-use review that pleads the case for the development of two parcels of land that would have been the subject of the inquiry city council requested.

On Tuesday, the premier declined to answer questions about this apparent irony, though he did mention the RCMP again.  

This does not mean the city has treated the Parker lands or the Canad Inns Stadium site fairly. Marquess in particular has not been shy about airing allegations of mistreatment by the city. The two parties remain in the midst of legal action.

But the special place afforded these two properties in the review may only serve to harden the position of a city council and a mayor's office that have been offside with Pallister and his government on many issues.

Mayor Brian Bowman claims the treasury board secretariat's review is just political. The review may also be accurate, in the broadest of strokes, but its unorthodox methodology makes it unlikely for city hall to give it much credence.

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