Winnipeg's property department 'dysfunctional,' suffers from broken culture, scathing provincial report says

The City of Winnipeg's property department is dysfunctional and suffers from a "broken culture," according to a provincial review of city planning, zoning and permitting based on interviews with 50 anonymous people identified as stakeholders.

Review based on anonymous interviews 'a developer complaint box shrouded in anonymity': mayor

A report criticizing Winnipeg's development practices, which relies heavily on anecdotes from unnamed interviewees, says there is a perception that inspectors are 'unqualified, untrained and given too much discretion.' (Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

The City of Winnipeg's property department is dysfunctional and suffers from a "broken culture," according to a provincial review of city planning, zoning and permitting based on interviews with 50 anonymous people identified as stakeholders.

A report from the province of Manitoba's Treasury Board secretariat, released Tuesday, says Winnipeg developers are harmed by an inconsistent application of regulatory standards, too much paperwork and "unqualified" inspectors who make arbitrary decisions based on personal biases.

The review relies on the opinions of unnamed stakeholders, who the report says were afraid to come forward for fear of retribution.

"The more you upset the administration, the more they slam the door on you," one interview subject was quoted as saying. 

Opportunity to vent: Pallister

Premier Brian Pallister's Progressive Conservative government ordered the review only weeks ago. It encompasses all Manitoba municipalities, as well as provincial parks, Manitoba Hydro, the Office of the Fire Commissioner and regional planning districts, but the City of Winnipeg is the report's primary focus.

The authors of the review say they consulted "developers of all sizes," other businesses and professional associations, along with current and former city officials.

It provides no evidence for any of its claims or allegations.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says he respects concerns about retribution expressed by the report's interviewees, who remain anonymous. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Pallister argued the review, conducted by civil servants, is no different than a reporter withholding the identity of their sources, although in this case there's no indication of attempts to substantiate the interviewee's claims by consulting other sources.

"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."

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said if the province was serious about improving the city's practices, it would call for a public inquiry.

"Unfortunately, what we have now appears to be a developer complaint box shrouded in anonymity," he said in an emailed statement.

Michael Jack, Winnipeg's chief corporate services officer, said city officials only became aware of the anonymous claims when they read them in the report on Tuesday.

"Most of what I read in the 200-page PowerPoint seemed to be unsubstantiated allegations, and so it would be helpful if we were offered more information to actually provide any sort of feedback," he said.

Inspectors 'unqualified, untrained'

The review says there is a perception that inspectors in all jurisdictions "are unqualified, untrained and given too much discretion to interpret plans and codes without supervision" and do so inconsistently within jurisdictions and between them.

The review states developers believe there are unofficial "grey books" that govern how inspectors interpret rules, and that developers believe they have no access to these purported documents.

"We have not uncovered any evidence that these exist," the report says.

"However, this begs the question, 'Why do we not have a province-wide grey book?'"

There are a lot of others who want to come forward, but they are '%$#!' scared.- Anonymous interview subject in report

As far as Winnipeg is concerned, the review states its interviewees expressed "significant anger and frustration" with the speed at which Manitoba's largest city processes permits. It also says interview subjects reported regulatory delays and alleged mistreatment by the city.

The review claims one interviewee was threatened by an unnamed city official and was told "things would not end well" because that person participated in the review.

"There are a lot of others who want to come forward, but they are '%$#! scared' to come forward because of the fear of retribution," another interviewee said, according to the report.

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

School renovations abandoned

The review also claims an unnamed server farm for "a leading global internet company," along with a distribution centre and warehouse for "a leading global online retailer," passed up Winnipeg for other markets.

The review further singles out two major city developments as suffering at the hands of municipal officials: the Parker lands and the former Canad Inns Stadium site.

It calls the lack of development at the Parker lands, a parcel of Fort Garry land owned by developer Andrew Marquess, as concerning. Marquess and the city are in the midst of a legal dispute over the development of this property.

Michael Jack, chief corporate services officer for the City of Winnipeg, says the city received no advance notice of the anonymous allegations in the provincial review. (CBC)

It also says the City of Winnipeg has stymied proposals to build on the former stadium site, owned by a consortium involving Shindico Realty and Cadillac Fairview.

The review claims the province "has been forced to abandon school renovations, expansions and the creation of new daycare spots" because of interference in Winnipeg.

Again, the review provides no evidence for this claim.

More tangibly, the review notes the city has increased building and development fees by hundreds of dollars without clear benefits to property owners.

The city has in the past described these hikes as necessary to recover the costs of processing development applications.

The review makes no formal recommendations as of now. The authors say they expect to release recommendations once additional stakeholders have an opportunity to provide input. 

Developers as adversaries

Industry leaders say the report lines up with what they've heard. 

Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Loren Remillard said that developers shouldn't be treated like adversaries any longer.

"Let's transform how we see development in our community, and those who are advocating for that development. They are clients."

Manitoba Home Builders' Association president Lanny McInnes says the allegations, while "eye-opening," won't come as a surprise to builders, who he says are used to burdensome delays.

For example, he said, a warranty rebuild of a home destroyed by fire shouldn't have to go through a variance process again. 

Pallister's political opponents have panned the review as politically motivated from the beginning, and the initial findings didn't change that.

"No one is going to say there isn't a concern with how some of these things are done," NDP MLA Andrew Swan said.

"The premier's process has been very questionable and I'm not surprised that people have some serious doubts about this report."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the province should help the development process by keeping up with revisions to the National Building Code of Canada.

Otherwise, the report "just seems to be an attack rather than having any practical solutions."

The review was conducted by the Treasury Board secretariat, made up of civil servants who report to a committee of cabinet.


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