Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Meewasin Valley Authority refusing to release CEO reports; board votes behind closed doors to investigate possible move to Mendel Art Gallery site

The official announcement was still more than three hours away but that didn’t stop the Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) board of directors from deciding to investigate the feasibility of moving its operations to the Mendel Art Gallery once it becomes vacant.

At 3:30 p.m. on April 3, 2009, Mendel board chair Art Knight and Mayor Don Atchison announced plans to move the gallery to the city’s troubled River Landing site and into a proposed new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan costing $55 million. The Mendel name would be stripped from the building. The long planned $24 million renovation and expansion of the current facility would be abandoned.

The politically motivated proposal, designed to secure federal stimulus funding, was developed in total secrecy. Neither the public nor Mendel members and donors were consulted beforehand. The Mendel name was conspicuously absent from the news release and glossy brochure that were distributed at the press conference. It was also missing from board chair Art Knight’s op-ed that was published in The StarPhoenix the following day.

A few hours earlier, at 11:00 a.m., the Meewasin board met in-camera and was briefed on the Mendel Art Gallery situation. It also received a report from Meewasin CEO Susan Lamb that may have included discussion on the gallery as well.

According to the minutes, Sandi Shultz, the city’s special projects manager, “briefed the board on the upcoming Mendel project. There will be a formal announcement on April 3, 2009. Ms. Schultz discussed the core function needed by the gallery including partnerships, permanent galleries, temporary exhibit space, administration space, support areas and an atrium that faces the river.

“Board comments and questions included time lines for the project, site location and usage; federal funding, former Mendel site use and a proposed opening date of the new facility.”

Following the chief executive officer’s report Mayor Don Atchison moved “that the board direct administration to look at the feasibility and viability of the current gallery location and [censored].” The motion was carried.

Unfortunately, several sentences in the minutes were blacked out by Meewasin staff before they were released on May 11. No explanation was given why.

The decision to move Meewasin to the Mendel site is clearly a fait accompli.

In the news article MVA eyes Mendel site (StarPhoenix, April 7, 2009), Gwen Charman, Meewasin’s director of operations, said the rush to decide which option to pursue is linked to deadlines for federal funding applications and to show the MVA’s interest to the city ahead of other suitors for the gallery.

It’s naïve to think that the mayor, a Meewasin board member, did not already know that the MVA would be interested in moving to the Mendel building. After all, Atchison was mayor in 2005 when the same idea surfaced after it was learned that the city wanted to move the Mendel the first time around.

StarPhoenix reporter David Hutton noted in the article that, “All four city councillors on the Meewasin board are in favour of moving to a vacated Mendel Art Gallery and have been quick to stake the organization’s claim to the building.” Honestly, is the public supposed to believe that this hasn’t already been discussed behind the scenes and that there aren’t two more votes on council to make the plan a reality?

Since the April 3 press conference the city has portrayed itself as an innocent bystander in the whole sordid affair.

On April 22 the mayor hosted a volunteer appreciation banquet at TCU Place in recognition of citizens that volunteer their time to serve on the city’s various committees, boards and commissions.

During the event Atchison spoke about the Mendel and the proposed new art gallery at River Landing. The mayor said it was the gallery that approached the city with the idea of moving and not the other way around.

If that were indeed the case then why weren’t Mendel trustees present at the April 3 Meewasin board meeting to speak to the issue instead of city administration?

Members of the Mendel board are appointed by city council. Make no mistake when it comes to capital projects or senior levels of government funding involving the gallery it’s the city that calls the shots.

On April 8 a freedom of information request was submitted to Meewasin for copies of any letters or emails between the authority and the city regarding the Mendel Art Gallery. The request also asked for a copy of the chief executive officer’s report and any records regarding the River Landing Destination Complex that were considered by the Meewasin board at its October 7, 2005, meeting. It was at that meeting the board discussed the city’s plan to move the Mendel Art Gallery.

In its May 8 response Meewasin disclosed one email (dated April 6) but refused to release the CEO’s report saying, “The chief executive officer’s report to the board of directors, in its entirety, is not disclosed as provided for by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, by way of application of sections 17(1)(a) to (g), 18(1)(d) and (f), and 22(a) to (c).”

These sections of the Act relate to advice from officials, economic and other interests, and solicitor-client privilege. All three are discretionary exemptions meaning that there is nothing to stop Meewasin from releasing the records if it so desired. The fact of the matter is it chose to withhold the records simply because it can.

Furthermore, it appears Meewasin violated the Act by not applying section 8 pertaining to severability which is mandatory stating: “Where a record contains information to which an applicant is refused access, the head shall give access to as much of the record as can reasonably be severed without disclosing the information to which the applicant is refused access.”

The April 6 email from Meewasin’s Gwen Charman to city manager Murray Totland and corporate services general manager Marlys Bilanski appears to fill in some of the blanks.

“As you will have heard from some of our Directors, the Meewasin Valley Authority Board of Directors passed a motion at their meeting on April 3, 2009 instructing the Meewasin administration to investigate the feasibility of an option to move our “new Meewasin Valley Centre” project to what will soon be the “former” Mendel building,” the email states.

“These investigations began today. We will also be informing possible federal and provincial funders that we are now looking at a second option. We expect to report back to our Board (and funders) within the month, at least with some preliminary information.

“[Meewasin manager of design and development] Lloyd Isaak will be asking for help from Sandi Shultz on Mendel building information.”

In October 2005 the city, with Atchison as mayor, tried to move the Mendel to River Landing but the plan fell apart when the gallery’s board voted unanimously to remain at the current site. The aborted plan included the possibility of Meewasin moving into the Mendel building once it was vacated.

At its October 7, 2005, meeting the Meewasin board considered a report by CEO Susan Lamb that included discussion of the doomed River Landing Destination Complex. According to the minutes a “list of issues and approximate costs pertaining to the destination complex” were included in the board’s agenda package.

“Discussion occurred about the possibility of the Mendel Art Gallery relocating to the River Landing. The City has engaged consultant David Russell from Vancouver to do a study on the destination complex. He is considered a destination centre expert. It is hoped his report will be ready by the end of November. The federal government will need a decision on this matter by the end of December. If an emergency meeting of the board is required, it will be called by the Chair.”

On May 8 Meewasin advised that it was refusing to release Lamb’s report and any records relating to the Destination Complex.

The Meewasin Valley Authority was created in 1979 by an Act of the provincial legislature. It is a partnership of the City of Saskatoon, the Province of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan. Each year the partners provide statutory funding.

The authority is a registered charity controlled by a twelve-person board of directors, with four members appointed by each partner. The majority of the board’s business is conducted behind closed doors.

Meewasin receives millions of taxpayer dollars each year. According to the organization’s registered charity information return filed with the Canada Revenue Agency, in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2008, the MVA received $4,539,757 in total revenue from the three levels of government. In fiscal 2007, the total was $3,198,226.

It is disturbing that Meewasin management feels the public has no right knowing its business. In this regard Meewasin appears to be following in the Mendel’s footsteps putting secrecy ahead of openness and transparency.


At 5:20 PM, Blogger sunnyside said...

Wow, I thought the whole point of the Meewasin Valley was the fact it was on pristine wild prarie, and to mimmic life of our first nations people before the white man. Moving it to an art gallery in the city, you might as well not have it anymore.


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