Sunday, October 19, 2008

Station 20 West: Sask. Health had four options, but won’t reveal them; access to Health Minister McMorris & Finance Minister Gantefoer memo denied

Health Minister Don McMorris and Premier Brad Wall

“[T]o cancel the entire project rather than deal directly with the situation is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
StarPhoenix editorial, March 29, 2008

“On the Station 20 West project, the government has provided several justifications for removing $8 million for the project, with its rationale seemingly getting more polished with each passing week.”
StarPhoenix editorial, April 24, 2008
The Saskatchewan Party government is denying access to Ministry of Health records that could be crucial to understanding the government’s decision to withdraw $8 million in funding from the Station 20 West development. The money had already been allocated by the former NDP government. Payment of the $8 million to the Saskatoon Regional Health Authority was entered by Ministry of Health, Finance and Administration Branch on Mar. 30, 2007 (from the unspent budget in the 2006-07 fiscal year) and was direct deposited to the health authority on Apr. 3, 2007.

Additionally the health region was to oversee financial management and be accountable for the $8 million contribution from the Ministry of Health to the Station 20 project.

Records obtained from the ministry under The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act appear to suggest that the Wall government determined early on to cancel its involvement in the project. Flawed, short-sighted reasoning was then used to back up its case.

The fate of the project seemed pre-determined; this while the Station 20 West board was requesting to meet with Health Minister Don McMorris and was receiving letters from health officials saying the project was still under consideration.

In an email dated Dec. 22, 2007, former Station 20 West project manager Paul Wilkinson advised board members and provincial health officials that two items needed to be discussed at a steering committee meeting proposed for mid-January in Saskatoon. The items included: An agreement to proceed to tender as soon as the design for the foundation is complete, probably in late Feb. 2008; and the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Saskatoon Health Region and Station 20 West which with the financial guarantees being obtained by Station 20 West, will hopefully allow the health region to disperse the $8 million knowing that additional funds to finish the building are guaranteed.

The recipients of the email included assistant deputy health minister Max Hendricks and Donna Magnusson, the executive director of primary health services with Saskatchewan Health.

Shortly after receiving the email Hendricks sent a message to Magnusson asking her to “please craft a letter putting a freeze on this til further notice.”

The letter that Magnusson was asked to compose was not included in the package of information released by the ministry. Its contents, if it does indeed exist, remain unknown. It would be interesting to know who else, besides Hendricks, was asking for the freeze and why.

In an interview with the StarPhoenix on Mar. 27, 2008, Premier Brad Wall said the concept of the project was “problematic” for the Saskatchewan Party. Wall dismissed Station 20 West as essentially a “mall development.”

“We ought not to be in the mall business and it’s just, it’s a different approach. We don’t think that the government of Saskatchewan should be opening up basically a mall development, where we’d be competing with grocery stores, competing with others who are already renting (facility space) now to community clinics in the area.” [20th Street ‘mall’ not a priority: gov’t (StarPhoenix, Mar. 28, 2008)]

There are no full-service grocery stores in the area. The last one closed more than 10 years ago. How Wall could not know this is incredible.

Wall’s comments also contradict government health officials description of the project in two briefing notes both dated Jan. 9, 2008.

The first was prepared by Fay Schuster, the director of primary health services with Saskatchewan Health, and titled: The Station 20 West Community Enterprise Centre.

“The Station 20 West Project is fundamentally an urban renewal project aimed at strengthening the economic and social well being of Saskatoon’s core neighbourhoods of Pleasant Hill, Westmount, King George, Riversdale and Caswell Hill, through a community-based economic development approach,” Schuster said.

The initiative combines “social, health, housing, library, community and educational services with a neighbourhood grocery store, and a public gathering place.”

The second briefing note was prepared by Donna Magnusson, the executive director of primary health services with Saskatchewan Health, and titled: Station 20 West Community Enterprise Centre – Options for the Future.

Magnusson, too, refers to the initiative as “an urban renewal project,” adding that the “Ministry of Health has committed $8.0M of the $12.6M budget with the remainder of the funding to be secured through a fundraising campaign.”

At the time of Wall’s comments Health Minister McMorris spun a different story saying broken hospital fire alarms and mould-infested care homes -- not political games -- were the motive for the government’s decision to pull $8 million in funding from Station 20 West.

Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer said when the new government took a look at the project, “there were a number of difficulties with it.”

Fundraising from private donors was supposed to contribute between $12 million and $14 million toward the total cost, but he was told only about $75,000 had been collected -- raising concerns about whether the province would end up on the hook for a shortfall, he added. [Core project in limbo (StarPhoenix, Mar. 27, 2008)]

Gantefoer was incorrect.

At a press conference on Mar. 27, 2008, Station 20 West project manager Paul Wilkinson said organizers needed to raise about $3.5 million on their own, and had already received commitments worth about $1 million. They knew they would be able to obtain a mortgage to cover a further $1 million, and felt confident a public fundraising campaign could net the remaining $1.5 million within the next few months, Wilkinson said.

“We have a large number of very significant partners in this project.” [20th Street ‘mall’ not a priority: gov’t (StarPhoenix, Mar. 28, 2008)]

The money collected up to that point was “all before an official, wide-spread public fund-raising campaign has even been kicked off.” [Hope Takes A Beating (Planet S Magazine, Apr. 10, 2008)]

Gantefoer’s office later confirmed he’d been mistaken about the numbers.

The Schuster and Magnusson briefing notes detail a handful of concerns with the project, but McMorris’s reason that the ministry needed the money for broken hospital fire alarms and mould-infested care homes is not among them.

As for fundraising this is nothing new in the non-profit sector. Organizations such as Persephone Theatre, Mendel Art Gallery, Meewasin Valley Authority, Saskatoon Zoo Foundation, Regina and District Food Bank and RCMP Heritage Centre have sought out donations to help fund capital projects. Station 20 West is no different.

The briefing notes mention rising construction costs, but this too is not uncommon and is something being experienced in projects throughout the province.

Magnusson’s briefing note states that Station 20 “has experienced difficulties in engaging committed stakeholders such as the Saskatoon Community Clinic and the aboriginal community. Further, they have set out to build a “green” building, which has driven up the costs of construction. They have been unwilling to compromise on the design to build within budget.”

In an Apr. 7, 2008, open letter to members, employees and friends former Saskatoon Community Clinic president Cheryl Loadman said “contrary to rumours, the Community Clinic remains fully supportive of the principles and vision of Station 20 West. Time and again, we have publicly stated our endorsement for the Station 20 West concept, and have said that we can see our future as part of this ‘community space’. We remain firm in our belief that the inner city community is best served by all of us, the Saskatoon Health Region, the University of Saskatchewan - Colleges of Medicine and Dentistry, local community organizations such as CHEP and QUINT, and the Good Food Junction Grocery Store, working together, creating a synergy focused on services for the inner city community. As a result, the Community Clinic made a commitment to become a tenant in Station 20 West; a commitment which we stand by today, and which we have stated publicly to the media.”

With respect to engaging the aboriginal community Saskatoon writer Meshon Cantrill noted in the May 8, 2008, edition of Planet S Magazine that “the problem may have been one of miscommunication – or, perhaps more appropriately, missed communication.

Former Station 20 project manager Paul Wilkinson says they were not made aware of the Saskatoon Tribal Council’s concerns – and indeed, had in fact received encouragement from the STC during the project’s development process.

“The Tribal Council’s urban manager met with Karen Archibald in 2006 and expressed support for the food store. The urban manager also met with the board in 2007. At that time she still seemed to be in support of the food store and of its potential for job creation for young people in the core area,” he says.

Moreover, Wilkinson says that, far from excluding the STC as a potential partner in Station 20 West, the board has long been trying to include them in the project.

“I can tell you that, in the last many months, I have made many attempts, personally, to meet both with the urban manager and with Chief [Joe ] Quewezance, but have never been able to get a meeting,” says Wilkinson.

Communication snafus aside, Wilkinson and the Station 20 West board are still very much interested in pursuing a positive partnership with the STC, as they move forward with a re-envisioning of the Station 20 West project, which is still very much alive in a scaled-down form.

“We’ve always wanted to have a positive relationship with the Saskatoon Tribal Council, and we still do. After Chief Quewezance was interviewed I actually wrote a letter to him basically saying that the project has changed, we’re going to concentrate on getting the food store, [and] we would like you to be a full partner. Please consider this and get back to us,” says Wilkinson.

Happily, it seems the STC is also entirely open to moving forward on meaningful dialogue with the Station 20 West board about the future of the reinvented project – and perhaps, to working closely as partners to bring those services to the inner city.

“Would the Tribal Chief consider that? Of course,” says Tournier. “Our Tribal Chief is a diplomat and a statesman, and as long as he’s our Tribal Chief I know that he would consider that very sincerely.” [Caught In The Rumour Mill (Planet S Magazine, May 8, 2008)]

In the same Planet S article Wilkinson said to suggest that the decision by Station 20 organizers to “go green” by building to LEED environmental standards was a poor one, because it would cause a large jump in construction costs, is not only incorrect, it’s also short-sighted reasoning.

“[O]ur architect had indicated that the cost was $208 per square foot, compared to $200 [being] the average cost, so it wasn’t exorbitantly more expensive than any other building,” he says.

“[Moreover], it’s very important for us to be building environmentally sustainable buildings. One, it’s better for the environment, which we all believe in, I think; and two, it results in lower maintenance costs and lower utility costs. We had actually calculated that we would pay that additional cost back over a seven year period.”

The Station 20 West Development Corporation has a steering committee to oversee the project. According to Magnusson’s briefing note the committee members at the time were:

Max Hendricks, assistant deputy health minister
Donna Magnusson, executive director of primary health services with Saskatchewan Health
Fay Schuster, director of primary health services with Saskatchewan Health
Murray Gross, manager with Ministry of Social Services
Shan Landry, vice-president Saskatoon Regional Health Authority
Mitch Strocen, coordinator capital and facilities planning with the Saskatoon RHA
Len Usiskin, manager of Quint Development Corporation
Karen Archibald, executive director of CHEP (the Child Hunger Education Project)
Paul Wilkinson, Station 20 West project manager

Schuster’s briefing note states that the steering committee “has agreed to a draft Terms of Reference and a number of working committees to deal with issues such as fundraising, community engagement, co-location, policy and evaluation, building design and construction, and engaging the Aboriginal community are planned.”

The question is why was the group not given the chance to work through these issues with the new government?

According to a letter to the editor that was published in the StarPhoenix on Apr. 10, 2007, the Station 20 West co-chairs, Sheila Pocha and Valerie Veillard, said that following the Nov. 2007 provincial election the new Saskatchewan Party government did not allow the steering committee to meet, despite numerous requests by the project manager for Station 20 West. The government has not explained who gave the order and why and the briefing notes released by the government don’t mention it.

In a Mar. 29, 2008, editorial the StarPhoenix said the reasons given by Gantefoer and McMorris for pulling the Station 20 funding were “a raft of juvenile excuses rather than part of a coherent plan” and called Wall’s excuse “weak.”

“But to cancel the entire project rather than deal directly with the situation is to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” the newspaper said. [Government’s actions signal trouble ahead (StarPhoenix, Mar. 29, 2008)]

Furthermore, three of the individuals on the steering committee – Hendricks, Magnusson and Schuster – appear in emails and briefing notes that, when viewed as a whole, seem to suggest the decision to reconsider funding the Station 20 West project was done early on and yet no one thought to warn the rest of the committee – or were staff advised not to say anything?

The most disturbing aspect of Donna Magnusson’s briefing note is that nearly two and a half pages have been severed. Magnusson states that “Given the difficulties this project has encountered and the potential escalation in construction costs, four options are presented for consideration with a recommendation.” The government, however, is refusing to release this information. The fact that it had developed four options to choose from was never made public. Why? What are the recommendation and the justification behind it?

Rather than being open and transparent Saskatchewan Health has chosen instead to hide behind Section 17(1)(a) of The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, a discretionary exemption, that states “a head may refuse to give access to a record that could reasonably be expected to disclose… advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options developed by or for a government institution or a member of the Executive Council.”

The Station 20 West board sent a letter to Health Minister Don McMorris dated Jan. 18, 2008, congratulating him on the election and his appointment to cabinet.

“We look forward to a complementary and supportive working relationship with you and your department in our efforts to improve the health and well-being of community residents in the core communities of Saskatoon,” the letter stated.

“We would like to meet with you, and perhaps other caucus members you would advise be included, to provide more details of our plans and answer any other questions you have. We also look forward to continue working with Saskatchewan Health officials as they have provided us with invaluable guidance as part of the Station 20 West Steering Committee.”

Four days later on Jan. 22, 2008, Jeannette Lowe, the director of budget and financial planning with Saskatchewan Health, sent an email to John Billington, the director of budget review with Saskatchewan Finance, which states in the opening paragraph: “Cancel Station 20 Agreement – Page 15 – What is the status of local fundraising and the loan/mortgage documents? What are the implications (ie. is government going to be liable for any costs here)? Has Health contacted the Provincial Comptroller to inquire whether the funds already provided to Saskatoon RHA could be recovered? What was the Comptroller’s response?”

These appear to be questions that Billington posed to Lowe who, in response, identified the monies that Station 20 had collected thus far and states in the last sentence: “The Comptroller’s Division has not been contacted as they would be unable to determine the treatment in the absence of a specific agreement. If the direction were given to proceed with cancellation, we would begin work with the Comptroller’s to determine whether the agreement should be amended or cancelled and what wording and conditions were required.”

The email also indicates that “About $250,000 has been spent from the $8M primarily for legal and architect fees.”

Lowe’s email to Billington was shared with Donna Magnusson and also copied to Ted Warawa, the executive director of the financial services branch with Saskatchewan Health, Brenda Russell, the manager of budget and financial planning for Saskatchewan Health, and Garth Herbert, an internal auditor with Saskatchewan Health.

An access to information request dated June 25, 2008, was submitted to Saskatchewan Health for a copy of the document that contains the reference to “Cancel Station 20 Agreement – Page 15,” but the ministry’s July 22, 2008, response advised that the request was being denied because “the record discloses a confidence of the Executive Council.”

What is the Wall government hiding?

The acting deputy minister of health, Gren Smith-Windsor, sent a letter dated Jan. 25, 2008, to Station 20 West, but unfortunately Saskatchewan Health failed to include a copy of the letter in the package of information that was released under the freedom of information Act. However, Station 20 West’s Feb. 20, 2008, response to Smith-Windsor discloses the purpose of the government’s Jan. 25 letter.

Former Station 20 project manager Paul Wilkinson’s letter to Smith-Windsor notes that the government had “three areas of concern regarding the viability and sustainability of Station 20 West.” These included: Increasing construction costs and sustainability, Engagement of Stakeholders, and the Community Clinic’s commitment. Wilkinson answered Smith-Winder’s concerns in detail and said “We are pleased to be able to address your points of concern in this correspondence but would very much welcome an opportunity to meet with you.”

Smith-Windsor’s letter must have mentioned delaying the project because in his letter Wilkinson at one point states: “Based on your letter we have agreed to delay the tendering process but it is our desire to have the delay as short as possible.”

Wilkinson closes his letter saying “We are available to meet with you at your earliest convenience to respond to more specifics. If you want to discuss this further please contact Karen Archibald or Len Usiskin or myself.”

The meeting never took place and it appears that Station 20’s request for one was already too late.

Health Minister Don McMorris issued a memorandum dated Feb. 19, 2008, to Finance Minister Rod Gantefoer regarding the “Station 20 West Community Enterprise Centre – Saskatoon.” The contents of the four-page memo, however, are unknown because Saskatchewan Health has denied access to it on the basis that “the record discloses a confidence of Executive Council.” The memo is stamped as being received by primary health services on Feb. 25, 2008, and has Donna Magnusson’s name written on the front.

Subsequently, in an email dated Feb. 22, 2008, from Magnusson to Margaret Baker, the director of primary health services, and Fay Schuster, with the subject line “FW: Station 20 Memo needed for TB Finalization,” Magnusson states: “This is what finally went over – Bev please print a copy for the file with the attached e-mail. Thanks. Donna.”

At least two other individuals received this email: Beverly Fahlman, administrative support with the primary health services branch, and Marie Bogdane, the secretary to assistant deputy health minister Max Hendricks.

Aside from the single opening sentence Saskatchewan Health has denied access to the rest of the email’s contents because “it contains advice from officials to Executive Council.”

According to a copy of Enterprise and Innovation Minister Lyle Stewart’s daily calendar, which was obtained through an access to information request, Treasury Board Budget Finalization meetings took place on Feb. 19 & 20, 2008, at the Ministry of Finance office in the 11th floor boardroom located at 2350 Albert Street in Regina. It seems clear that some kind of decision regarding the Station 20 West funding was made at these meetings.

In a Feb. 26, 2008, letter Health Minister Don McMorris responded to Station 20 West’s Jan. 18, 2008, correspondence stating: “Ministry officials advise me that the Acting Deputy Minister of Health recently sent a letter to the Station 20 West Board. The letter outlined some of the concerns that have been raised regarding this project. The prospect of establishing a multi-service facility in the core area of Saskatoon to serve the residents’ health and social needs is a laudable goal, and I would concur with the concerns raised in that letter.”

McMorris’s letter does not mention Station 20’s request for a meeting nor does it disclose what happened at the Treasury Board Budget Finalization meetings regarding the project’s $8 million provincial funding.

Six days later in a letter dated Mar. 3, 2008, acting deputy minister of health, Gren Smith-Windsor, replied to Station 20 West’s Feb. 20, 2008, letter thanking them for taking the time to respond in detail to the letter he’d sent in late January 2008.

“The viability and sustainability of the proposed Station 20 West project is still under consideration. I understand that Ministry officials continue to be in regular contact with you regarding the project. They will contact you as soon as we are able to set up a meeting to discuss the future of the project.”

Smith-Windsor’s letter does not mention what was discussed and/or decided at the Treasury Board Budget Finalization meetings concerning Station 20 West provincial funding.

On Mar. 13, 2008, James Parker, the director of regional services in the communications branch with Saskatchewan Health, distributed Budget 2008-09 information regarding Station 20 West to senior staff in the department for approval.

The three-page document states “In the upcoming budget, funding will be revoked for a project announced in Saskatoon approximately one year ago – a Community Enterprise Centre called Station 20 West.”

The department’s communication strategy included assistant deputy minister Max Hendricks advising key partners in the Station 20 West of the funding decision after the budget is delivered and that messaging will be provided to the Minister of Health regarding the reasons for the decision.

The key messages of the strategy included just two reasons for the funding decision: “We carefully assessed the project before coming to this decision. Regrettably, it was clear that there were significant issues with costs, and that First Nations organizations were not adequately consulted or involved in the planning process.”

The document also contains a section devoted to “Considerations” but the ministry severed this information and is refusing to release it because it could disclose advice, proposals, recommendations, analyses or policy options developed by or for a government institution or a member of the Executive Council.

It appears the document was approved by Marg Moran McQuinn, the executive director of the communications branch with Saskatchewan Health, and Fay Schuster, the director of primary health services with Saskatchewan Health, on Mar. 13, 2008. The assistant to the deputy minister of health, Lauren Black, and assistant deputy health minister Max Hendricks are also listed on the document.

On Mar. 14, 2008, James Parker forwarded the same budget document to Kathy Young, the executive director of communications with the Executive Council and Carolyn Hamilton, a communications consultant with Saskatchewan Health.

The 2008-09 provincial budget was delivered in the Legislature on Mar. 19, 2008. There was no public announcement about the Station 20 funding cut.

On Mar. 20, 2008, assistant deputy minister Max Hendricks called Station 20 West project manger Paul Wilkinson. This was followed by a letter faxed from acting deputy minister Gren Smith-Windsor to Station 20 representatives confirming “that the Government of Saskatchewan will not be proceeding further with the Station 20 West Development Project.”

In a letter to Smith-Windsor dated Mar. 24, 2008, Wilkinson said the Station 20 West Board was “very concerned” about the government’s decision not to proceed with the project.

“In your letter of March 3, 2008 you indicated your intention to arrange a meeting to discuss the project. This meeting had never taken place. We respectfully request an opportunity to meet with you immediately for this discussion.”

Smith-Windsor’s Mar. 28, 2008, response thanked Wilkinson for taking the time write and express his views, but arrogantly dismissed the request for a meeting saying, “I believe the information you require was communicated to you directly on March 20, 2008.”

It was at this point the government started adding excuses on why the funding was pulled.

A Mar. 28, 2008, briefing note prepared by Donna Magnusson titled “Station 20 West Community Enterprise Centre – Decision Not to Proceed” notes that “There are many financial pressures in the health system, particularly for infrastructure and equipment. Our provincial budget increased capital spending to help the health system meet huge infrastructure challenges it’s facing after years of neglect.”

“Funding originally set aside for Station 20 West is being redirected to meet urgent needs, including replacement of a CT scanner at City Hospital, a chiller at Royal University Hospital, and a fire alarm system at St. Paul’s Hospital,” Magnusson said.

“The Provincial Auditor expressed concern about the Station 20 West project, and we take those concerns seriously.”

On Saturday, Apr. 5, 2008, the future location of Station 20 West was home to Saskatoon’s largest demonstration in recent memory.

Between 2,000 and 2,500 people gathered on the lot at the corner of 20th Street West and Avenue L to protest the provincial government’s $8 million cut in funding for the development. No politicians spoke at the rally. [Thousands back Station 20 West (StarPhoenix, Apr. 7, 2008)]

It wasn’t until Apr. 9, 2008, that Station 20 West board members were finally able to meet with Health Minister Don McMorris and Premier Brad Wall. The government, however, denied the final plea for provincial funding. [The answer is still ‘no’: Wall (StarPhoenix, Apr. 10, 2008)]

The StarPhoenix took issue with the Saskatchewan Party, which was “appearing to go out of its way to project an image of poor-bashing.”

In an Apr. 24, 2008, editorial the newspaper said “On the Station 20 West project, the government has provided several justifications for removing $8 million for the project, with its rationale seemingly getting more polished with each passing week.

“It still doesn’t explain why it makes more sense for the government to dedicate $5 million to run programming through food banks. As to citing the provincial auditor’s concerns about accountability for spending as reason to withdraw Station 20 funding, it’s notable that the auditor said the same thing about capital funds given to boards of education, but without the same drastic impact. And McMorris’s rationale that the money was desperately needed to bring fire alarms up to standard at St. Paul’s Hospital simply is at odds with the Saskatoon Fire Service’s assessment of the situation.” [Poor-bashing begins to hurt gov’t image (StarPhoenix, Apr. 24, 2008)]

It’s clear that Saskatchewan Health officials knew very early on that the Station 20 West funding was in serious jeopardy, but said nothing. Requests for meetings were ignored and the project organizers were stalled and strung along until the budget was delivered. To add insult to injury the Wall government is now hiding crucial information from the public that could provide something closer to the real reasons for the government’s underhanded decision.

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