City fires 8, suspends 7 in property and planning department for doing personal errands on public dime

By | September 11, 2019

The City of Winnipeg has come down hard after it says an investigation proved some staff in the property and planning department abused work hours to run errands, shop and take lengthy coffee and lunch breaks.

Eight people have been fired, seven suspended, four given written reprimands and one given a non-disciplinary letter.

“I want to say that we are deeply disappointed to have found there was truth to the allegations. The employee-employer relationship is built on a solid foundation of trust and when that trust is broken, it is difficult to repair,” said interim CAO Mike Ruta.

In this case, trust was not only broken between those two groups, it was broken with the public, he said.

“Unfortunately, what we discovered was more than broken trust. It was theft — theft in the form of time and theft in the form of fraudulent mileage claims.”

The investigation was launched in April after an undisclosed group paid a private investigator to videotape city inspectors conducting personal business during their shifts.

John Prystanski, the lawyer representing the anonymous citizens group that commissioned the private investigator, told CBC News Wednesday that the group is not happy that people had to lose their jobs.

“But at the same time, they are also of the opinion that if people aren’t doing their job — for which they are being paid — then they don’t deserve to be an employee.”

The unions representing the employees have grieved the disciplinary actions, Ruta said, and as a result, he is unable to provide more details of the investigation.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees is not commenting at this time.

The city said in July that six employees had been fired, but the investigation was still ongoing.

City of Winnipeg interim CAO Mike Ruta says a review of all field operations in every city department will take place. (CBC)

The city reviewed 80,000 documents and 1,500 daily work inspection sheets, did some 100 interviews and looked through driving logs, video and other materials provided by the secret group that first came forward with the allegations.

“While we are disappointed in the finding from this investigation, it is also important to remember this shall not be a reflection on all city staff,” Ruta said.

“We know we have many hard-working staff and dedicated professionals employed by the City of Winnipeg, who take pride in doing their jobs and serving the public.”

Beyond the immediate disciplinary action, the city is now looking at making improvements across all departments to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.

As a result, it will be conducting a review, with the help of an outside consultant, of all field operations in every department.

The review will also cover the structure of each department, the management and the hiring practices.

The city will also look at how to use technology to account for staff time and track productivity, and intends to improve the training provided to newly appointed supervisors to help them transition from being a co-worker to being a boss.

“Our commitment will be to restore the trust that was lost and to regain the confidence of the public,” Ruta said.

“We will all continue to strive to do better.”

Asked whether the matter of theft will be pursued with police, Ruta said “we haven’t gone that far.”

The city hasn’t decided whether it will seek reimbursement from the employees for the mileage rates paid out.

“That’s one piece we will be looking at,” Ruta said, adding he didn’t have a dollar figure for the amount that was inappropriately claimed.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, who met with reporters Wednesday afternoon, said that the city wants “any and all available options for recourse exercised.”

‘Broken system’

Ruta and Bowman were both asked by reporters why the head of the property and planning department, John Kiernan, wasn’t reprimanded as well.

Kiernan, who is responsible for overseeing the staff, had said early in the investigation process that he didn’t know what was going on.

Prystanski, though, said that former city managers have told him that management has known about this “for a number of years.”

Bowman said that no management was reprimanded because the report focused on the individuals responsible for the abuse.

The lack of consequences to staff overseeing operations doesn’t sit well with Transcona Coun. Shawn Nason.

“I am disappointed, at this point of reporting on this most disturbing human resources crisis at city hall, in the appearance of failure to hold senior or middle management accountable in this matter,” he said in a statement emailed to CBC News.

At Wednesday morning’s news conference, Ruta was asked by a reporter if the city considers ignorance of the staff’s actions an acceptable excuse for supervisors.

“What I’ll say is, based on our review and discussions with the director, I have full confidence in the director and what he’s done,” Ruta said.

Bowman said he trusts Ruta’s confidence in Kiernan, but added that much needs to be done to rebuild trust.

More questions than answers: Klein

Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood Coun. Kevin Klein agrees. 

People getting fired does not fix the issue, Klein told reporters at city hall on Wednesday morning.

“It’s very disappointing that this is a five-month investigation with very little action or detail provided,” Klein said. “The information session we had was limited. It created, in fact, more questions.”

Coun. Kevin Klein said he wants a review of all levels of the municipal civil service to determine where resources are going and how they’re being used. (CBC)

Klein wants to know why the city wasn’t checking mileage sheets and asking what employees were doing all day.

“We have to get to the core of the problem. We need to get to the culture that created this problem,” he said.

He wants a review of all levels of the municipal civil service — from the CAO down — to determine where resources are going and how they’re being used, so the city knows “exactly where it fell off the rails.”

“That’s just one department,” Klein said of the review. “This is a culture throughout the city, and it’s a culture of leadership.”

In a statement, Darryl Harrison, the Winnipeg Construction Association’s manager of policy and research, said the association sees the investigation as “a crucial first step in building a culture of responsibility and accountability within the department.”

“Over the coming months, we’d like to see the city continue to work to streamline the inspection process, re-staff to the proper level and drive a culture of accountability,” Harrison said.

Next steps

Bowman said the report is the beginning of a process that he expects will bring increased scrutiny — and deservedly so.

“There’s obviously some needed checks and balances that should have been in place before,” he said.

The report lists a number of accountability measures that Bowman said he expects will be implemented, such as acquiring a city fleet for the property and planning department, as opposed to employees using privately owned vehicles.

That, however, would require money.

Bowman said the department will continue operating under its current budget, but should it need more money, the budgetary ask will be reviewed by council before receiving approval.

Wednesday’s report is on the agenda for next week’s executive policy committee meeting. Bowman said he would have more to say on the matter then, but he stresses that the changes presented will take time.

“Addressing this matter by the public service, with the oversight of council, is something that’s not going to be over in the next week, or the next month. This is going to be ongoing,” he said.

Anonymous citizens group

Prystanski said his clients are hopeful that positive changes will be made as a result of the internal probe, but they are concerned that people will blame the citizens group in the future, if the inspection process takes longer due to the accountability measures that will be implemented.

“There should be no slow-down of the work that was being required before,” Prystanski said. “There’s been no bylaw changes — it’s still the same sort of process.

“We’re just hoping now that the employees that have been retained, and who will be hired in the future, will put in a full day’s worth of work.”