Flashpoint: December 2013
By Peter Sells
In September, Reid Douglas was dismissed after two years as the chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.
By Peter Sells
In September, Reid Douglas was dismissed after two years as the chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service. Three weeks later, city council accepted the resignation of Douglas’s boss, chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl. One week after that, a confidential report to Winnipeg city council by Ernst & Young on the new fire-paramedic stations construction project was made public.
Coincidence? It seems not. The report reads like a treatise on mismanagement. Here’s some background: in 2008, the previous CAO initiated a plan to replace two suburban fire/paramedic stations and build one new downtown station. Subsequently, a third suburban station was included in the plan. The chain of events is complex, but if you are interested, the review and recommendations can be found on the City of Winnipeg website.
The budget for the project was approved at $15.3 million and came in $3 million over that. That overrun should not be surprising to anyone who has been involved with multi-year municipal capital projects. What is surprising is the following series of revelations:
- With the total budget in excess of the $10-million limit that requires council approval, Shindico Realty (the contractor) was awarded four separate contracts, of $5.9 million, $3.2 million, $3.2 million and $3 million. This tactic of splitting a purchase is an amateur’s attempt to circumvent the rules, and is sure to be caught by auditors.
- The project involved a land swap with Shindico, in which three parcels of city-owned land, including two surplus fire stations, were traded for land owned by Shindico, on which a new station was to be built. This was a very complex set of transactions, with copious pages of legalese and financial considerations. Not only was the project entrusted to a fire chief who, by his own admission, did not have the requisite background or experience to manage the city’s interests in such a deal, but the chief was instructed directly by the CAO in an e-mail to “Get it done,” according to the report.
- The chief had expressed concern, both to Shindico and the CAO, that station construction work had begun on the Shindico-owned land before the ownership transfer was complete. According to a CBC News story from Oct. 23, Douglas had told Shindico that the company could end up with a very expensive convenience store that looked like a fire station if the deal did not go through. Douglas’s concern was also apparently ignored by Sheegl, who the Winnipeg Free Press said in an Oct. 19 story, claimed to have only a “50,000-foot view” of the project when council started asking questions in 2012.
Douglas was given an impossible set of tasks by a boss who seemed to prefer to stay clear of any involvement. When all of the transgressions of rules and violations of policy came to light, both were held accountable, although it seems clear that Douglas was a fall guy in a completely no-win situation.
The Ernst & Young report makes a number of valid and insightful recommendations, such as this one: “Project management of real estate construction projects and the lead in all real estate transactions should reside with Planning Property and Development Department.” That makes perfect sense; assign such work to the people with the education, skills and experience to manage multimillion-dollar projects. Chief Douglas was in over his head. Kristine Friesen, the project manager chosen by Douglas from within the WFPS ranks, is a paramedic with no apparent relevant background other than, according to the Winnipeg Free Press, having participated on a station design committee as a rep for the Manitoba Government Employees Union Local 911, which represents Winnipeg’s medics. Neither Douglas nor Friesen was competent by any measure for the tasks at hand.
The Ernst & Young recommendation mentioned above should be taken a step or two further, to address the root problem in a more comprehensive manner. Tasks requiring specific technical competency, such as managing a real estate project, or managing a communications centre, or fire apparatus specification and purchase, should be assigned only to staff who possess such technical competency. Also, management development or succession-planning programs for executive-level positions should include all competencies for any tasks that could be reasonably expected to come across the incumbent’s desk; this would include knowing the limits of one’s capacity and authority, and knowing how to bring in appropriate resources.
We certainly wouldn’t fight a fire the way Winnipeg handled these station projects. We certainly wouldn’t put people into positions of command unless they were fully competent, trained and qualified. Commanders certainly wouldn’t assign tasks that their firefighters were neither trained nor equipped to execute safely. If it’s not acceptable at the pointy end of the stick, then how can it be acceptable at the top of the organization?
Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo