City CAO told about Sterling Lyon expropriations a year ago, confidential briefing note says
Document also says Coun. Marty Morantz was 'kept in the loop' about project
A confidential briefing note obtained by CBC News casts doubt on claims that senior city officials didn't know about a plan to run a freeway through a southwest Winnipeg neighbourhood.
During the fall of 2016, former Winnipeg public works director Lester Deane informed Winnipeg chief administrative officer Doug McNeil about plans to expropriate all or part of 92 properties.
Those properties were in the way of proposed extensions of the Sterling Lyon Parkway and William Clement Parkway.
When owners of some of the properties learned about the expropriations this fall, their outrage led city council to place the western extension of Sterling Lyon Parkway on hold. CAO McNeil and Charleswood-Tuxedo-Whyte Ridge Coun. Marty Morantz said they first learned of the route in October of this year.
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But in a briefing note dated Nov. 28, 2016, Deane — who was fired in May 2017 — urged McNeil to make the expropriation plans public as soon as possible while also stating Morantz had been kept in the loop about the project.
'Delaying further can bring … mistrust'
"Delaying further can bring sentiment/mistrust with the public that we are hiding something by not presenting the final solution to public/impacted property owners," Deane wrote in the confidential briefing note, obtained by CBC News through a freedom-of-information request.
"Impacted property owners have been contacting the city and the consultant asking for updates because they want closure to their situation as people are waiting to make decisions on their properties including the fact that we continue to issue building permits in the general area."
Delaying the public disclosure of the expropriations, Deane continued, "leaves them wondering what's happening."
The city wants to extend Sterling Lyon Parkway to ease the traffic burden off of Wilkes Avenue.
In his November 2016 briefing note, Deane stated his department was ready to speak to owners of property in the way of the proposed freeway but could not do so until Winnipeg's office of public engagement reviewed the materials.
The design for that route upset property owners this fall because it was different from three options presented to the public in January 2016.
Deane said in his note that the office of public engagement, which is overseen by Winnipeg communications director Felicia Wiltshire, was presented with the fourth route on Nov. 1, 2016.
Deane also said a final report from the consulting firm WSP was completed on Nov. 15, 2016 and was "being reviewed by the administration" at the time he wrote to the CAO.
"We cannot disclose the final recommended preliminary design alternatives to impacted property owners/public because materials are not reviewed and approved by the office of public engagement," Deane wrote, referring to the 92 private property owners.
"We have already been delayed by more than a year and a half, partially due to waiting for approvals on previous open house materials; therefore we need to complete this project soon to bring stability to the area and the neighbourhood."
'Morantz has been kept in the loop'
Deane also stated area councillor Morantz was briefed about the project.
"Councillor Morantz has been kept in the loop throughout the project by the project manager," stated Deane in the briefing note, adding public works officials wanted to meet with the councillor before they met with property owners.
Those meetings did not take place until October 2017, after the posting of a provincial environmental-assessment application made property owners aware of the proposed expropriations.
Anger from property owners led Morantz to craft a motion calling for the proposed route to be abandoned. It also led McNeil to apologize for what he described as a failure on the part of the public works department to make anyone aware of the proposed freeway route, which was different from three options presented to the public.
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"The huge misstep in all of this, which I don't condone at all, is not sharing both internally — [with] senior administration, elected officials — and externally an option that was clearly a brand-new option and nobody had the opportunity to comment on," McNeil told council's public works committee on Oct. 31, 2017.
'Completely contradicts all of that'
Loudoun Road resident David Ames, the president and chair of the Wilkes South Residents Association, said he is surprised and shocked McNeil was in fact told of the expropriations nearly a year earlier.
"We had verbal confirmation, as well as a written email to our homeowners, stating that both he and Coun. Morantz had no idea about this route, that they thought this was just a normal process of these three other road alignments and that they were not aware of the significant number of expropriations or property acquisitions that were needed," Ames said.
"This briefing essentially completely contradicts all of that."
Both McNeil and Morantz said in spite of what the briefing note suggests, they were not made aware that the fourth route planned by the public works department and the consulting firm differed from options they had seen before.
Both said Deane should have drawn more attention to the fact the city's preferred route was different.
"Truthfully, what the briefing note didn't say was that 'we changed the alignment,' that 'we haven't gone back out to the public yet to show them that alignment,'" McNeil said.
"So I would have expected that briefing note would have raised some red flags with my office to say, 'You know, we actually picked an alignment and that was never shared with the public before.'"
Morantz said despite what Deane wrote, he too was not made aware the suggested route for the extension of Sterling Lyon Parkway had changed in any way.
"What I was kept in the loop on, was essentially the results of the public consultations," Morantz said. "I was never advised as to Option 4."
'Possible he didn't fully understand'
The councillor also said he was not sure if the CAO knew about the route.
"I mean, it looks like he was briefed on it, but it's possible he didn't fully understand it. I don't know," Morantz said.
McNeil said as Winnipeg's top public servant, he does not read every page of every report that comes across his desk.
The briefing note from Deane came with four attachments: a drawing of the properties that would be impacted by the expropriations, a draft version of the design report, a draft of a letter that would be sent to property owners, and a draft of materials that would be presented to property owners at an open house.
"I can't recall if I actually got those attachments," McNeil said. "Even if I had, in my role, I never would have looked at them all."
Nonetheless, McNeil said he put a stop to any plans to speak to the Wilkes South property owners in the fall of 2016 because it would be wrong to do so before Christmas.
No public consultations took place until October 2017, after residents learned of the plan in what McNeil and Morantz called a mistake.
McNeil said former public works director Lester Deane is the official ultimately responsible for the city's decision to only plan to extend Sterling Lyon Parkway along the route the residents found objectionable.
McNeil fired Deane in May 2017. Deane has not responded to CBC News requests for comment on any matter since his departure from the city.
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Ames said he is upset he and his neighbours were not made aware of the proposed expropriations in 2016, when Deane was pushing for the city to go public with the plan.
"The problem that I have is that permits were issued during this time. Houses were bought and sold along this route. People invested their lives along here," Ames said.
"At best it's irresponsible and at worst, it's more significant than that."
McNeil said this can happen when roadway projects are in the planning stage. He said he did not want to mislead the public into believing Winnipeg had any money set aside to extend Sterling Lyon Parkway.
"It is kind of unfortunate that we proceed to allow people to have building permits while we're in the planning stages of a project, but that's just our reality," McNeil said.