Thursday, October 29, 2009

27.3% voter turnout leaves Mayor Don Atchison with weak mandate; StarPhoenix coverage of mayoral forums pathetic; Mendel travesty swept under carpet

Saskatoon’s 2009 civic election was barely in the books when Don Atchison, who had just won his third term as mayor and for the first time in the city’s history every incumbent was returned to city council, said that voters were happy with the way things are going.

“The people of Saskatoon believe we are going in the right direction, that the city is doing fine the way it is,” he said.

“If you can think about a city of this size and every person is able to come back together again that’s truly amazing,” Atchison said. “It says that people are satisfied with what’s occurring in our community today.” [‘People are satisfied’ (StarPhoenix, October 29, 2009)]

Atchison seemed completely oblivious to the fact that voter turnout was an embarrassing 27.3 per cent and that his own vote total had suffered a dramatic drop from the 2006 civic election.

The unofficial results for the mayoral candidates were:

Don Atchison – 26,676
Roger M. Chernoff – 709
Steve Lawrence – 407
Johnny Melenchuk – 736
Lenore Swystun – 17,678
Total votes: 46,206

Atchison received 57.7 per cent of the total votes cast for mayor.

Of the more than 218,000 city residents, 170,272 were eligible to vote. [Saskatoon voters head to the polls (StarPhoenix, October 28, 2009)]

This means Atchison’s support from the total number of eligible voters in Saskatoon was just 15.6 per cent. This is in no way a vote of confidence. It is instead a very weak mandate.

Atchison’s vote total was down 11,702 from 2006 when he garnered 38,378 votes – or 63.8 per cent. Lenore Swystun, on the other hand, had an excellent campaign that saw her vote total go up 4,139 from 2006. In that election she received 13,539 votes – or 22.5 per cent.

The voter turnout in the 2009 election was the lowest since 2000:

2009 – 27%
2006 – 37%
2003 – 52% (Casino vote)
2000 – 26%
1997 – 20%
1994 – 46% (Casino vote)

The StarPhoenix’s coverage of the mayoralty forums was pathetic with stories buried and averaging about 367 words. In fact, two forums held October 20, 2009: the Business and Professional Women Saskatoon Mayoralty Forum at 200-120 Sonnenschein Way and the Saskatoon and Region Home Builders Association at the Willows Golf Course, received no coverage at all.

The newspaper seemed more interested in reporting on the visit it co-sponsored by former U.S. President George W. Bush, a war criminal, to Saskatoon on October 21, 2009.

The following is a breakdown of the StarPhoenix’s lousy job:

Atchison, Swystun spar over planning
October 15, 2009, Page A8, 370 words

Swystun tries to broaden public’s perception of her
October 16, 2009, Page A4, 287 words

Swystun, Atchison joust over project
October 20, 2009, Page A6, 422 words

Candidates tackle library future
October 23, 2009, Page A9, 418 words

Swystun backs taxi commission
October 27, 2009, Page A5, 338 words

As for Atchison’s six-year record as mayor it was virtually ignored.

The StarPhoenix blamed the poor voter turnout on the lack of contentious issues. On the contrary, those issues are there it’s just that the newspaper chooses not to treat them as such. This includes things like the poor decisions and reckless spending on River Landing or the plan to move the Mendel Art Gallery. Rather than hold city council to account the newspaper instead takes every opportunity to protect it by supporting the projects.

In the post-election editorial Sustaining growth in tough economy council’s challenge (StarPhoenix, October 29, 2009) the newspaper brass stated the following:

“The destination centre steering committee that was to present council with options for River Landing has been overtaken by events. When it became clear that the feds had no desire to put in money to revamp the Mendel Art Gallery, if for no other reason than because there are too many art galleries and museums across the country for Ottawa to get into that game, Saskatoon’s senior administration and council had to act quickly on their own to adjust the city’s strategy. This left many Mendel supporters feeling betrayed.

“Council now has to make sure it opens the process as much as possible, assuages those who were wounded by the shift and bring into the process as many citizens as it can to secure public support.”

Unfortunately, it’s too late for that. The integrity of the process has been damaged beyond repair. The city, the Mendel board, and the provincial and federal governments simply have no credibility.

Furthermore, it’s incredible that the StarPhoenix would even suggest such a thing. The newspaper is failing its readers by abdicating its responsibility to investigate the debacle and get to the bottom of the closed door meetings and backroom dealing. To date the newspaper has let all parties off the hook.

The aforementioned destination centre steering committee meets in secret and has issued no reports. At least two of its members – Mendel board chair Art Knight and Meewasin Valley Authority CEO Susan Lamb – appear to in conflict since both their organizations have an interest in the outcome. So what has the StarPhoenix done about this? The answer is nothing.

Finally, the low voter turnout would seem to suggest that political lobby group LEAD Saskatoon had little impact on the election. Interestingly, the group ran no advertisements in the StarPhoenix nor did it ask candidates to fill out a questionnaire like it did for the 2003 and 2006 elections. Why this wasn’t done has not been explained.

In an October 19, 2009, news release LEAD director Don Ravis said the group was concerned that in this election the lack of contentious issues and, in some wards, the lack of candidates will result in a poor voter turnout.

“[W]hen you get a strong turnout of voters, you make it much more definite as to what direction you want your Mayor and City Council to follow, and you give those elected a much stronger mandate. We don’t want people standing up at Council meetings claiming that they represent a majority of citizens, when in fact their claims cannot be substantiated. That’s why we hold elections. Make your views known, run for office, and truly let the citizens decide. Without question, the more people who vote, the clearer the voice of Saskatoon will be heard,” Ravis said.

Given the 27.3 per cent turnout, Ravis’s standard should apply to Atchison and city council as well. They clearly do not represent the majority of citizens. What we have shaping up here is three more years of controversy and divisiveness.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mayor Don Atchison’s 20 Not-So-Greatest Hits

Don Atchison was first elected mayor of Saskatoon on October 22, 2003.

Since 2004 property taxes have gone up nearly 23 per cent and the city’s long-term debt has exploded from $23-million to a projected $156-million by the end of this year.

The city’s operating budget has risen 53 per cent and capital spending has increased a whopping 251 per cent. And to make matters worse the city is facing its fourth straight year of deficits and the rainy day fund that city council uses to help balance the budget as required by law has run dry.

Then there’s River Landing where costs have tripled from $42-million to $135-million. Enough said.

For a growing number of people it seems Atchison has overstayed his welcome by about six years.

What follows are 20 issues – in no particular order – that have created controversy during Atchison’s reign.

1.) Alleged racial remark

At a civic election public forum held at the First Nations University of Canada on October 19, 2006, Mayor Don Atchison was alleged to have uttered a racial remark and to have said something that offended a fellow candidate.

According to the article Mayors’ race turns ugly: Mayor, challenger have altercation (StarPhoenix, October 21, 2006) several witnesses said Atchison came under fire from spectators who demanded a further explanation for the decision made earlier in the year by the board of police commissioners -- of which he is chair -- not to renew former police chief Russell Sabo’s contract.

Mayoral candidate Ron Kocsis said the incumbent eventually responded to the questions by telling the forum Sabo was “too aboriginal-friendly” for Saskatoon.

Those were Atchison’s exact words, Kocsis said in an interview on October 20, 2006.

“Everyone was just shocked. I think he just slipped up and spoke his mind.” But Atchison said in a phone interview he never suggested Sabo’s departure was linked to his friendliness toward First Nations.

“I’m not getting into any he-said, she said,” the mayor responded.

Other candidates and observers said Atchison’s response was less inflammatory and more like his previous explanations for Sabo’s departure.

City Park community association president Tom Wolf, who was seated in the front row, said regardless of Atchison’s word choice, his comments appeared to be taken by most people in the room -- Kocsis included -- as a suggestion that Sabo was let go because he had a strong focus on the aboriginal community.

Kocsis says Atchison later made a disparaging remark to him while they were sitting next to each other at the debate table during a closing speech by mayoral candidate Lenore Swystun. Kocsis says Atchison gave him an up-and-down stare and said, “A guy like you wants to be mayor?” followed by a derisive snort.

“I don’t know what he meant -- is it because I’m First Nations that he would say that?” Moderator Daryl Oshanek confirmed Kocsis interrupted the proceedings after Swystun’s speech to demand an apology from Atchison, and Atchison refused.

Oshanek and Wolf said they saw an exchange of words between Atchison and Kocsis just before Kocsis demanded an apology, but they could not hear what was said.

“Strong offence was taken by Mr. Kocsis, and it was palpable. We were shifting uncomfortably,” Wolf recalled.

2.) Police Chief Russell Sabo’s contract

At a press conference held March 2, 2006, the city’s board of police commissioners announced that police chief Russell Sabo’s contract would not be renewed. Mayor Don Atchison, who chairs the police commission, said Sabo had done a good job, but would not explain why the decision was made. Atchison said the board did not disagree with the direction in which Sabo was taking the force. He also refused to reveal whether the board voted unanimously to oust the chief.

According to the StarPhoenix, Atchison said police chiefs in Canada generally only last three to four years in their jobs. Sabo has been in Saskatoon almost five years, “and we feel that it’s time that we in fact do the same thing (as other cities),” the mayor said. [Police chief out of a job: Board offers little explanation of decision (StarPhoenix, March 3, 2006)]

3.) Mendel Art Gallery

In October 2005 the city floated the idea of moving the Mendel to River Landing. The plan was roundly criticized. Former director Terry Graff and the gallery’s board of trustees had the courage to stand up to the city and reject the plan.

On December 7, 2005, city council put the screws to the Mendel by placing the gallery third behind the Victoria Bridge and Persephone Theatre on the city’s list of priorities for federal centennial funding. Officials with Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) warned the city that the bridge might not be appropriate for the funding but the city put it on the list anyway. Furthermore, the city does not own Persephone and yet WD allowed the city to submit their name.

Graff resigned October 31, 2007, when the Mendel board decided not to renew his contract, which was set to expire October 2008.

Although he had the option to complete his contract, Graff chose to step down.

“I needed the board’s complete support and confidence in what they approved,” he said, referring to a recent five-year business plan for the gallery that was approved by the board.

“To not renew my contract runs contradictory to accepting the plan,” said Graff. [Graff paints positive picture of Mendel (StarPhoenix, November 2, 2007)]

The majority of the Mendel board is appointed by city council.

On April 3, 2009, Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel board chair Art Knight announced that the nationally recognized gallery would be renamed and moved into a new building at River Landing. The long planned $24-million expansion and renovation of the Mendel would be abandoned. The public, Mendel family, donors and supporters were never consulted.

It was at a closed-door meeting on March 23, 2009, that the city’s executive committee decided to approve in principle, a new art gallery as the anchor facility at River Landing Destination Centre.

The only reason we know this is because a private citizen made a freedom of information request.

On September 23, 2009, Atchison participated in a press conference announcing funding for the $58-million facility. The city’s contribution is approximately $17-million, plus $7-million for an underground parkade. Atchison was quoted by CBC News as saying the city’s portion “will come out of our capital projects.”

At no point in time was the issue debated at a public meeting of city council. It was all done in secret.

4.) Disregard for the city’s built heritage

On Mayor Don Atchison’s watch the city lost two major pieces of built heritage: The Gathercole building (former Saskatoon Technical Collegiate, built in 1931) and the nearby Royal Canadian Legion, Branch #63 built in 1929 by local veterans of the First World War. Both were cited by the Heritage Canada Foundation (HCF) as being among the worst losses of heritage in Canada.

In January 2004 Atchison told the StarPhoenix he wasn’t interested in spending public money on the Gathercole site.

“For the life of me, I can’t believe we would take federal, provincial or municipal dollars on a site where the private sector has been knocking at the door.” [How federal cash will be spent focus of mayor, Goodale meeting (StarPhoenix, January 16, 2004)]

Since then at least $70-million has been spent or committed to the site. With that much money the Gathercole and Legion buildings could have been renovated three or four times over.

Currently on the HCF’s Top 10 list of endangered buildings is St. Mary Community School in Pleasant Hill, the city’s oldest Catholic school built in 1913. It is being demolished to create green space. Atchison supports the plan.

5.) Voted to use library taxes for interchange

At the June 27, 2005, city council meeting Mayor Don Atchison voted against instructing city administration to negotiate with FirstPro Shopping Centres that 50 percent of the overpass located at Clarence Avenue and Circle Drive be paid by FirstPro. The developer agreed to pay only 20 percent.

According to Council OKs contentious big box development (StarPhoenix, June 28, 2005), Mike Gilman, project manager for FirstPro Shopping Centres ‘told council before its vote that he doubted FirstPro would have a “real appetite to continue” trying to build the mall, if its terms weren’t accepted.’

At the February 27, 2006, city council meeting Atchison voted in favour of dedicating incremental municipal and library property taxes on the FirstPro Shopping Centre property for 15 years to help finance the construction of the Clarence Avenue and Circle Drive overpass.

Council’s decision cleared the way for FirstPro to begin building a giant Wal-Mart before the interchange is built even though city administrators and council had previously insisted that the interchange be finished prior to the opening of the first store.

In Rushing ahead with interchange cause for unease (StarPhoenix, March 1, 2006), the newspaper’s editorial board wrote: “Atchison and others are on record saying that no shopping centre would be opened unless an interchange is in place to avoid traffic snarls and for safety reasons. Now, it appears that a big box shopping centre expected to generate traffic of 2,500 vehicles an hour during Saturday peaks could open with just a temporary traffic control light.”

6.) Shafted the Saskatoon Public Library

In February 2004 Atchison said he was willing to commit $5 million toward renovation of The Bay building for an expanded downtown library, pending city council’s approval.

The funds made up one-third of $15 million in federal strategic infrastructure funds earmarked for Saskatoon.

“I’m hoping we can do that,” Atchison said in an interview. “I understand (the library’s) concerns and needs for a new facility. The last thing we need is for The Bay to come down, the (Bay) parkade to come down and the King George Hotel to come down.”

The then library board chair, Ian Wilson, said a newly constructed downtown library would be a $30-million project. Renovation of an existing building is substantially cheaper, depending on The Bay building’s condition, at $15 million to $20 million. [Mayor proposes cash for library in Bay building (StarPhoenix, February 26, 2004)]

Five weeks later Atchison reneged on the arrangement.

On April 5, 2004, city council decided to approve an application to Infrastructure Canada that asked for all of the federal money to be spent on the A.L. Cole site (now River Landing Phase II).

In Library may face choice on new branch (StarPhoenix, April 7, 2004) Atchison said the Saskatoon Public Library may have to choose between building a Riversdale branch and a new central library.

The 20th Street West Branch was an unexpected addition to the city’s south riverfront development plan that was unveiled April 5, 2004. The library board had earlier asked the city to consider support for a new central library.

“I don’t know if they can afford both,” Atchison said in an interview. “I don’t know if we can find the money for them. They’re going to have to make a decision.

After five years of stalling the cost of building a new main library has now increased to $50-million. [City passes tax hike (StarPhoenix, April 8, 2009)]

7.) Supported devastating condo conversions

From September 2006 to July 2008 the city experienced an incredible string of 23 consecutive months of double-digit house price increases. Average house prices doubled and vacancy rates plummeted.

It wasn’t until June 2007, nine months into the crisis, that Atchison admitted there was a problem and that political action was necessary.

It took Atchison seventeen months — when house price increases were above 50 per cent — to finally acknowledge, in January 2008, that the issue had become the city’s top priority.

From 2006 to 2008 the city approved the conversion of 2,027 apartments to condominiums.

On June 27, 2009, the StarPhoenix reported that “most agree” the conversions “cut the supply of rental apartments, helped drive rents higher and ushered in a wrenching period of uncertainty for many existing tenants.”

Atchison is on record as supporting condo conversions.

8.) Abuse of process

At city council’s September 19, 2005, meeting Mayor Don Atchison told councillors there would no debate on the proposed River Landing Destination Complex. They could speak only once and were limited to five minutes. The arrogant heavy-handed tactics meant there was no chance for rebuttal. Mayor Atchison also arbitrarily reserved the right to speak last, which Councillor Tiffany Paulsen described as an “abuse of process”.

9.) Reduced public members on police board

At the December 1, 2003, city council meeting Mayor Don Atchison voted in favour of reducing the number of public members on the board of police commissioners from four to two. This was part of Atchison’s plan to seize the chair of the police board.

During the 2003 civic election Atchison said, “We need a police commission with the Mayor as the Chair to make the commission accountable to Council directly.”

However, the Saskatoon Board of Police Commissioners does not report to city council. The police board is an independent board that is not supervised by city council. The supervisor of the board is the Saskatchewan Police Commission, and ultimately the Minister of Justice – not city council. The purpose of an independent board is to act as a buffer or insulator between the police and city council. Atchison failed to understand this important concept.

At the time of the 2003 civic election the chair of the police board was Leanne Bellegarde Daniels, a citizen. It didn’t take long for new mayor Don Atchison to challenge her position.

In the November 5, 2003, StarPhoenix, Atchison made it clear that “come Jan. 1, I certainly intend on being the chair.”

On November 6, 2003, Bellegarde Daniels resigned her position as chair of the police commission.

On November 20, 2003, the board named Mayor Don Atchison as chair.

10.) Failure to read Neil Stonechild report

On October 26, 2004, Justice David Wright released a scathing report into the November 1990 freezing death of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild in the city’s north industrial area implicating the Saskatoon Police Service.

Ten days later, on November 5, 2004, the StarPhoenix reported that Mayor Don Atchison hadn’t “thoroughly read the report because of a full schedule.”

“I’m not trying to duck out, just tell you the straight goods -- that I haven’t read the whole report yet,” Atchison said, before catching a flight to Toronto, where he was to attend meetings later that day. [Mayor yet to endorse Wright report: Atchison has not read all of Stonechild report (StarPhoenix, November 5, 2004)]

11.) Lack of openness and transparency

During Atchison’s first term as mayor the city’s executive committee, which is composed of all members of council with the mayor sitting as chair, conducted at least 22 special closed-door meetings. This is in addition to the committee’s regularly scheduled in-camera meetings. The public does not have access to the agenda or minutes for these meetings.

12.) Rob Dee and Associates regional retail study

On December 16, 2002, City Council authorized a Regional Retail Study in the 2003 Capital Budget (project 2035).

In February 2003, the city contracted the services of Rob Dee and Associates (Ontario), in association with Fast Consulting (Saskatoon), to undertake a Retail/Service Space Needs and Distribution Study for Saskatoon.

On February 9, 2004, City Council received the Retail/Service Space Needs and Distribution Study as information.

At the meeting Mike Gilman, First Pro Shopping Centres, advised council that their application for development has been put on hold for over a year waiting for the Retail Study to be completed, and expressed concerns with some of the aspects of the study.

Against administration’s recommendation city council resolved to reject “that the introduction of new, major retail locations into the Saskatoon market occur in a phased approach over time, as warranted demand for retail space grows city-wide.” The vote was 10-1. Mayor Don Atchison was one of the ten that voted to toss the $120,000 taxpayer funded report.

“We need to send a message to the private sector that Saskatoon is going to become the most business-friendly city by 2006,” said Atchison, referring to a resolution passed by a previous council. [City council opts for flexible plan to develop retail (StarPhoenix, February 11, 2004)]

13.) Dress code for visitors to the mayor’s office

On November 4, 2003, Atchison arrogantly introduced a dress code for visitors to his office. Public reaction was swift and harsh. On November 5, 2003, the dress code was rescinded.

14.) Scaring persons with disabilities

During the 2009 civic election Atchison resorted to scaring persons with disabilities and using them to get re-elected.

In the article City eyes recycling plan: mayor (StarPhoenix, October 13, 2009) Atchison said a city-run blue-box curbside recycling program would mean a tax increase of a minimum $144 per year and result in SARCAN Recycling workers ending up “out on the street.”

SARCAN has grown to support recycling efforts in 62 communities through 71 depots. Its last annual report shows 2008 was the forth consecutive year that container returns have grown by more than seven per cent. With more than $35 million in deposit returns going to the public last year, it’s unlikely that residents will abandon SARCAN because of a blue box program.

In the article, Atchison said the city is studying a “unique” subsidy program involving Saskatoon Curbside Recycling, a private for profit firm, which will likely require some sort of subsidization. This means taxpayers will still pay.

The Saskatoon Curbside Recycling website says the cost of their service is $15 per household per month, plus GST. This works out to $189 per year, which is less than the $144 a month Atchison is trying to alarm people with.

15.) Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast

With the election of Don Atchison as mayor came the return of the elitist Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. The annual event was held February 14, 2004, at the Centennial Auditorium (now TCU Place). Atchison managed to offend a lot of people.

In Breakfast evangelism narrow-minded (StarPhoenix, February 18, 2004), civic affairs columnist Gerry Klein said Atchison told the crowd of about 800: “If you don’t believe in God or if you don’t believe in a Supreme Being, I honestly don’t know how you can go anywhere in life.”

Klein took exception to what he was hearing.

“It’s one thing to hold Christian views… and quite another to use one’s office to propagate the faith. This is something one expects from fundamentalist regimes, not in liberal democracies such as Canada,” he said.

“In his campaign to become mayor, Atchison made it clear there was no place in Saskatoon for those who didn’t respect law and order. Given his officially held view (it was the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, not Atchison’s), one wonders how welcome are those who don’t hold his beliefs.”

In Many leaders have no wives, Mayor Atch (StarPhoenix, February 18, 2004) columnist Joanne Paulson lambasted Atchison for making this comment: “This is called the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, but it’s not just for the mayor. It should be called a ‘Leader’s Breakfast,’ because it is for all the leaders in the community and their wives or significant others.” [Prayers support mayor: Saskatoon faith community resumes annual breakfast (StarPhoenix, January 31, 2004)]

To which Paulson shot back, “I can think of several leaders in this community who do not have wives. Shall I list them for you, Mayor Atchison?”

“The mayor wasn’t using some bizarre updated use of the term, when he suggested that the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast was for city leaders and their wives or significant others. And I’m afraid he can’t wriggle out of this by suggesting “significant others” refers to “everybody else including husbands, partners, and spouses of every description.” He meant male leaders and their wives or girlfriends, or he would have said “wives, husbands, or significant others,” Paulson wrote.

“I would also like to know what his definition of leader is.”

16.) Sweetheart deal for Remai Ventures

The city’s appraised value of the 2.43-acre spa hotel site on the former Gathercole site was $2.9 million. The city sold it to Remai Ventures Inc. for only $1.6 million.

On December 12, 2005, Atchison voted in favour of a deal in which Remai Ventures Inc. received a total of $3.1 million in tax incentives from the city over the course of the spa hotel’s construction and its first four years of operation.

Atchison had previously said there would be no tax breaks or subsidies on the hotel site and that the city must receive every dollar of the land’s value.

17.) Bending the rules for Lake Placid Developments

On June 23, 2008, Atchison voted in favour of unfairly bending the rules to allow Lake Placid to build River Landing’s hotel four storeys higher than zoning guidelines permit.

The maximum building height for a hotel at the corner of Second Avenue South and Spadina Crescent was eight storeys. Council passed an amendment to the site’s special zoning allowing the hotel to rise to 12 storeys.

Councillor Charlie Clark said two developers told him they might have submitted proposals had they known the city would be flexible with the zoning rules.

“I have some real questions about the fairness of the process. I question, when this is what the competition was based on, going back and changing the rules now.”

Atchison didn’t seem to care about the integrity of the process.

The amendments are “minor,” he said. [River Landing hotel can add four storeys (StarPhoenix, June 24, 2008)]

On June 22, 2009, city council granted Lake Placid an extension to June 30, 2010, to complete all excavation required for the development of Parcel “Y”, River Landing Phase I, provided that payment in full for Parcel “Y” was received no later than 5:00 p.m., Monday, August 17, 2009. The original deadline to complete the excavation was June 30, 2009.

Lake Placid subsequently missed the August 17, 2009, deadline.

At a special city council meeting held August 19, 2009, Atchison voted in favour of giving the developer another extension to 5 p.m., October 30, 2009, to pay the balance of the Purchase Price for each of Parcel Y and the Lane Adjacent to Parcel Y to 5:00 p.m., October 30, 2009, provided that all interest accrued under both Agreements, totalling $214,197.19, is paid on August 31, 2009.

Atchison voted against amendments to change the deadline from October 30, 2009, to September 15, 2009, or September 30, 2009.

“This is absolute certainty now,” Atchison said of the Oct. 30 deadline. “You heard me at the end there tell Mr. Lobsinger if he doesn’t come up with the $214,197.14, the deal is finished, or if he doesn’t come up with the money for the land, it’s terminated as well.

“There’s no more chances.” [Lake Placid gets time (StarPhoenix, August 20, 2009)]

As of October 25, 2009, there has been no word on whether Lake Placid has made the required payment.

18.) Amusement Tax fiasco

On March 21, 2005, Atchison voted in favour of tax breaks for Famous Players who planned to build a 12-screen theatre complex on Block 146. The decision created an unlevel playing field for other theatres.

In the article Downtown theatre one step closer: City council approves tax breaks for Famous Players (StarPhoenix, March 22, 2005), it was reported that the tax breaks included an annual grant refunding the amusement tax to Famous Players. Famous Players would also collect a 100 per cent property tax break on the theatre in its first year, dropping to 80 per cent in the second, 60 per cent in the third, 40 per cent in the fourth and 20 per cent in the fifth. Famous Players had asked for a 100 per cent abatement for seven years.

The city did not commit to extending the same incentive to the existing downtown theatres run by Cineplex Odeon and Famous Players.

The city’s business incentives are designed to target housing to downtown, all forms of business to core neighbourhoods and industry in general, not movie theatres.

On June 25, 2007, city council finally voted in favour of abolishing the amusement tax but Atchison refused to support the move noting council had defeated a motion to kill the tax when it passed the city budget.

“I don’t know how you can pass things that were defeated. . . . To pass this today, you’re sending a very bad message.”

Instead of killing the tax now, the city should have waited until later in the year when it knows if it’s running a surplus or deficit, Atchison said. [Council axes tax (StarPhoenix, June 26, 2007)]

19.) Special deal for Persephone Theatre

In a deal approved by city council on December 7, 2005, Persephone Theatre will receive a five-year tax incentive under which the non-profit theatre will pay no taxes in its first year of operation in the new building, with discounts of 80, 60, 40 and 20 per cent in each of the following four years. The theatre will be exempt from property taxes during construction.

In Curtain call for theatre (StarPhoenix, December 8, 2005), it was reported that “Persephone will buy a parcel of land at the corner of Second Avenue and Saunders Place for $30 per square foot, or about $888,600.

Mayor Don Atchison said that’s the appraised value of the land, not a reduced price.”

What Atchison did not mention, however, was that the land was originally valued at $32.50 per square foot.

On December 5, 2005, the city advised Persephone that it had obtained a fresh appraisal that differentiated between the values of the north half and the south half of the River Landing cultural block. The north half was valued at $30 and the south half, being closer to the river, was valued at $36. Accordingly, the city reduced Persephone’s cost to $30 per square foot, and that was the price reflected in Persephone’s purchase agreement.

20.) Contempt for city council

In Transit shuttles need tweaking (StarPhoenix, September 14, 2005) civic affairs columnist Gerry Klein wrote: “Another issue in which (Councillor) Birkmaier was correct but which received little attention last week was over a letter Mayor Don Atchison was charged with writing to the CRTC advising that council has no objection to an application by the CBC for a local FM licence. The CBC wants to improve the reception for its programming in the city.

Although council agreed to the letter on Aug. 15 – with a deadline of Aug. 31 – Atchison received a letter from Vic Dubois, president of the Saskatchewan Association of Broadcasters, a couple of days later asking the city not send a letter.

Without seeking the advice of councillors, Atchison decided he would ignore the wish of council. As Birkmaier pointed out, by doing so he subverted the wishes of council. It may seem a small thing, but councillors and citizens should have the confidence that when they pass a motion, it is acted upon. Failing that, the mayor should have personally contacted his colleagues and made sure a majority supported his change of heart.”

It should be noted that the letter from Vic Dubois to Mayor Don Atchison was dated August 19, 2005. It was received by the mayor’s office on August 22, but not by the city clerk until August 31. It appears the mayor’s office held onto the letter for nine days.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

LEAD Saskatoon director and city councillor among attendees at speech by former U.S. president George W. Bush; authorities fail to arrest war criminal

An audience of about 2,000 paid up to $115.95 each, including service charges, to hear former U.S. President George W. Bush talk about his eight long years in office. According to the StarPhoenix most of the crowd seemed impressed, giving Bush several standing ovations. [Ex-president defends Iraq war (StarPhoenix, October 22, 2009)]

The war criminal’s noon hour speech at TCU Place in Saskatoon on October 21 lasted all of 45-minutes, followed by a 45-minute “conversation” with Calgary businessperson and University of Saskatchewan graduate W. Brett Wilson.

Local right-wing radio talk show host John Gormley was the emcee. No surprise there.

Wilson’s questions were pre-approved by Bush officials. Organizers refused to reveal Bush’s speaking fee. No surprise there, either.

On October 2, Wilson participated in a Q & A with Saskatchewan News Network senior reporter Jason Warick. When asked if Bush was a good president Wilson dodged the question. “I don’t think my views on that are relevant,” he said.

Wilson said the former president is “a professional, through and through” and someone whose “integrity and honesty are above reproach.”

As for critics that say Bush a war criminal Wilson suggested it wasn’t “professional or respectful.” He said “people have the right to protest” but then called it “nonsense” and “disorganized chaos.” [Chat with Bush (StarPhoenix, October 3, 2009)]

It seems obvious where Wilson’s loyalties lie.

Among those attending the event were Vic Dubois, general manager of CJWW-AM, CFQC-FM and CJMK-FM in Saskatoon, and his wife Bev, the city councillor for Ward 10. The couple was seen standing in line outside before the event.

Vic Dubois is also a director of the political lobby group LEAD Saskatoon Futures Inc.

LEAD was formed in August 2003 — just prior to the civic election — allegedly as a response to the embarrassing voter turnout of 26 per cent in 2000. The group’s stated objective is to increase voter awareness and participation in the election.

In reality, however, LEAD’s primary goal is to try and get as many business friendly people as possible on city council.

tinePUBLIC Inc., a partnership founded by two Calgary entrepreneurs, Christian Darbyshire and Andy McCreath, were responsible for bringing Bush to Saskatoon.

The event was presented by Calgary-based Bedford Biofuels and sponsored by the Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce, The StarPhoenix, TCU Place, and American Express.

TCU Place is a publicly owned, taxpayer funded multi-purpose cultural and entertainment facility. The current board of directors includes Mayor Don Atchison and LEAD Saskatoon directors Vic Dubois and Don Ravis. [City of Saskatoon 2009 Municipal Manual]

It’s nice to see the public’s money hard at work supporting a warmonger like Bush as he continues the difficult transition from public to private life.

Taxpayers are also on the hook for Bush’s security bill.

According to the article Security tight for Bush Former U.S. president arrives today for speech (StarPhoenix, October 21, 2009) more than 100 private security officers, city police, RCMP and U.S. Secret Service agents were used.

Bush arrived by private plane in the morning and flew out immediately after the event.

Those attending had to go through a security checkpoint that included a metal detector.

The tab for the extra security is unclear, but each of Bush’s two previous speeches in Canada this year cost taxpayers more than $100,000.

Authorities at the event failed to arrest Bush for his war crimes. The illegal wars Bush started in Afghanistan and Iraq have claimed over a million lives – and they’re still ongoing. No U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force was adopted in either case. [Congressional Research Service RL 30588 (October 6, 2009) and RL 31339 (August 31, 2009)]

The day’s only bright spot were the protestors that took part in a peaceful demonstration. CBC News estimated the number at 300.

The CBC noted that demonstrators were unable to boo Bush in person because he was taken inside the building earlier in the morning and avoided any encounters with the crowd. [Hundreds protest Bush speech in Saskatoon (CBC News, October 21, 2009)]

The rally’s organizer, Peter Garden, is the owner of Turning the Tide bookstore. Garden set up a Facebook group called the George W. Bush Welcoming Committee to coincide with the former president’s visit. It boasts over 2,030 members.

“I can’t in good conscience sit by and not mobilize against a war criminal coming to town,” said Garden in an interview with the StarPhoenix in mid-September.

A worldwide movement to put Bush on trial for war crimes emerged following the end of his second term earlier this year, he added.

With a trillion-dollar war in Iraq started on false pretences, the many thousands of civilian and military deaths, lack of due process for Guantanamo Bay detainees and the Abu Ghraib torture fiasco, Bush should be tried in international courts, said Garden.

“If there was any justice in this world, he’d land at the Saskatoon airport and be placed in handcuffs,” he said.

That being said, free speech is not something Garden wants to ignore.

“I’m not going to stop him from speaking, but I’ll voice my concerns,” he said. [Bush protest in works (StarPhoenix, September 11, 2009)]

Labour lawyer Larry Kowalchuk was on hand to address the crowd and alleges that TCU Place management refused to schedule any of its Muslim staff for work on the day of Bush’s visit. This wasn’t reported by the StarPhoenix.

Councillor Bev Dubois (in black & white jacket)

Vic Dubois (center)

Protest march heading east on 19th Street

TCU Place

Labour lawyer Larry Kowalchuk

Sunday, October 18, 2009

StarPhoenix misleading voters about political lobby group LEAD Saskatoon’s motives; directors include Vic Dubois, Russel Marcoux & Coni Evans

The StarPhoenix is misleading voters about lobby group LEAD Saskatoon Futures Inc. and its motives for taking part in civic elections.

Twice in the last month the newspaper has suggested that the non-profit group’s primary reason for getting involved is to get more people to do their civic duty.

On October 16, the newspaper said LEAD’s stated objective is “to increase voter awareness and participation in the election.”

LEAD director Don Ravis said his group is “concerned that… the lack of contentious issues and, in some wards, the lack of candidates will result in a poor voter turnout.” [Group promotes increased voter participation (StarPhoenix, October 16, 2009)]

Last month an editorial noted that the “group formed in time for the 2003 civic election as a response to the embarrassing voter turnout of 26 per cent in 2000.” [Multiple trips to polling booth price of freedom (StarPhoenix, September 17, 2009)]

In that election city councillor Jim Maddin defeated incumbent Mayor Henry Dayday.

Maddin was perceived as being less business friendly than Dayday. This could explain why LEAD Saskatoon was nowhere to be seen following the October 22, 1997, civic election when Dayday won his fourth consecutive term as mayor with a voter turnout of barely 20 per cent. The StarPhoenix reported that Dayday knew within 15 minutes of the polls closing that he’d won. [Electorate fails to show (StarPhoenix, October 23, 1997)]

Why wasn’t LEAD concerned about the results from that election?

Records filed with the corporations branch of Saskatchewan Justice show that LEAD Saskatoon was incorporated on August 23, 2003. The nature of the group’s activities is listed as “political lobbying”.

The group currently has eight directors but their names aren’t posted on the organization’s website. They are:

▪ Joe Bloski, general manager, Early’s Farm & Garden Centre

▪ David Criddle, president, Pro-Trans Ventures Inc.

Vic Dubois, general manager, CJWW-AM, CFQC-FM and CJMK-FM

▪ Gary Emde, owner, Prudential Sask Realty

▪ Coni Evans, former president of Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce. Evans worked for Point2 Technologies.

▪ Russel Marcoux, president and CEO of Yanke Group of Companies; and, former chair of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

▪ Todd Peterson, vice-president sales and marketing, Saskatchewan Blue Cross

▪ Don Ravis, former Tory MP for Saskatoon East in Mulroney government

(Note: LEAD’s board originally included Don Funk, a friend of Don Atchison. He ceased being a director on December 31, 2004. Funk is one of the organizers of the annual Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. Vic Dubois became a director on February 23, 2006. His wife is Bev Dubois, city councillor for Ward 10.)

LEAD unveiled its civic election plans at a press conference on September 18, 2003, at the Travelodge in Saskatoon. According to The StarPhoenix approximately 50 people attended the event – some by invitation. [Group aims to double turnout from 2000 civic election (StarPhoenix, September 19, 2003); Time to get involved in civic election (StarPhoenix, September 20, 2003)]

At the time LEAD had “about 40 unofficial supporters who have attended meetings during the past year,” and were “launching a fund-raising campaign aimed at generating between $10,000 and $20,000.” The money would be used to fund campaign advertising and a Web site for the organization.

Mayoral candidate Jim Pankiw was skeptical about LEAD, alleging it’s aligned with Atchison through the involvement of Atchison campaign manager Lori Isinger.

“This is a Don Atchison smokescreen,” said Pankiw, refusing to reveal how he knows there’s a connection. “It’s the oldest trick in the book.” [New group stirs civic election pot (StarPhoenix, September 18, 2003)]

LEAD and Atchison denied this, of course.

LEAD is always quick to point out that it endorses no candidate and provides financial assistance to none. Publicly endorsing someone is not the same as working behind the scenes encouraging or recruiting people to run in certain wards. The public would be naïve to think that this kind of thing doesn’t happen.

At some point during this time, a one-page letter, undated, soliciting for donations was circulated. It was signed by LEAD director Joe Bloski and addressed to “all Saskatoon taxpayers”. The problem is not everyone got one. It seems only a select few did.

“There is a growing concern amongst the citizens of our community that our city has become stagnant and is failing badly on its economic course and its ability to make decisions on major issues and opportunities,” Bloski said.

The letter said LEAD Saskatoon was formed “to try and bring about some changes that, hopefully, will place Saskatoon back on track.”

Bloski cited eight issues that LEAD believed city council had “mismanaged.” These include:

1. World University Games 2007
2. South Downtown Development
3. Casino
4. Police Department
5. Dialogue with Aboriginal Community
6. C.P. Wang Dismissal
7. Gathercole Site Proposals
8. Special Needs Transit Services

“In order to effectively promote the aims and objectives of LEAD SASKATOON prior to the next civic election, we are respectfully soliciting your financial support. Your contribution will assist us in preparing and delivering a strong slate of common-sense, business-minded candidates who possess some of those qualities we so desperately need. We will also focus on evoking an emotional response from the taxpayers that will help them appreciate the importance and relevance of their vote,” Bloski said.

The StarPhoenix never informed readers that LEAD’s main objective was more than just getting people out to vote, it was to stack city council with as many business-friendly individuals as possible. The only columnist that came close to exposing LEAD for what they were was Gerry Klein who said in his October 21, 2003, column that LEAD was a “civic lobby group” “organized to unseat council members including Maddin.”

Unfortunately, Klein’s words were limited to just one sentence buried in an article that had little to do with the group.

During the 2003 civic election LEAD used print and radio advertising to evoke “an emotional response” from voters.

One such advertisement was a ridiculously over-the-top two-page spread in the October 19, 2003, edition of the Saskatoon Sun.

Saskatoon is at a crossroads,” the ad said. “Never before in our city’s history has your vote mattered more.”

“You’ve heard it all: About crime and safety issues, casinos, south downtown, transit services. From the Moral Majority, the Politically Correct and other special interest groups.”

“It’s time to take back our city – to restore its unity, its potential and its pride.”

“Vote! Your future depends on it! Do it for your city. For your kids. Foryour future.”

Honestly, the way LEAD was carrying on you’d think the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were at the city gates.

The thing is LEAD itself is a special interest group. At least two of its directors served with the Saskatoon and Canadian chambers of commerce – the biggest local and national business lobby groups around. LEAD wanted their kind of people on city council. It’s no more complicated than that.

LEAD obviously got what it wanted because three years later, during the 2006 civic election, Klein wrote that the group was now “fighting for the status quo.” [Status quo will rule civic race (StarPhoenix, October 25, 2006)]

No doubt this is the minimum that LEAD will accept in the October 28, 2009, civic election as well.

Saskatoon Sun, October 19, 2003, p. 28

Saskatoon Sun, October 19, 2003, p. 29

StarPhoenix, September 18, 2003, p. A1

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mayor Don Atchison stoops ‘to scare persons with disabilities… to get re-elected’; six year trail of deficits, tax increases, record spending and debt

Dark & Foreboding vs. Colourful & Vibrant

Without a doubt of the five mayoral candidates in this year’s civic election that have campaign websites incumbent Don Atchison’s is the worst. The two term mayor’s dark, foreboding homepage has about as much charm and appeal as a root canal.

In stark contrast is Lenore Swystun’s colourful and vibrant website. The community developer and former city councillor welcomes visitors to her site with all kinds of stuff to explore: platform, news releases, candidate questionnaires and links to her campaign blog and Facebook page.

Atchison’s website, on the other hand, offers little more than a few static pages containing his biography, experience and so-called successes. There’s no sign of a platform anywhere. What’s the man hiding?

Furthermore, whoever designed Atchison’s website did so in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to print from.

The three remaining mayoral candidates: Roger M. Chernoff, an ex-realtor and investor; Steve Lawrance, an unemployed singer; and, Johnny Melenchuk, a safety officer and shop foreman, don’t appear to have websites.

Atchison’s six year tenure as mayor has led to record spending, record debt, tax increases and at least three straight years of deficits. A letter to the editor from Saskatoon resident Barb Nankivell in the October 14, 2009, StarPhoenix details the sorry state of the city’s financial affairs:
“It concerns me when I read that Saskatoon is headed for its fourth straight year of deficits. With Don Atchison as mayor, the rainy day fund that city council uses to help balance the budget as required by law has run dry.

Under Atchison the city’s long-term debt has exploded from $23 million in 2004 to a projected $156 million by the end of this year. Saskatoon is borrowing so much money that city administration this fall will be asking the province to increase the city’s debt limit.

Since 2004 property taxes have gone up nearly 23 per cent and residents have seen the three biggest mill rate increases in a decade. The city’s operating budget has risen 53 per cent and capital spending has increased a whopping 251 per cent.

Thanks to city council’s ridiculous idea of moving the Mendel Art Gallery, the total cost of River Landing is now $135 million. The Mendel can be renovated for $24 million but the mayor would rather spend $58 million to build a new art gallery.

He didn’t bother to ask the people of Saskatoon or the Mendel family how they felt about it. Are we going to put up with this nonsense for another three years? I hope not. It’s time we elected a new mayor.”
Another Saskatoon resident, Georgie Davis, has submitted an op-ed to the StarPhoenix responding to some disturbing comments that Atchison made about curbside recycling and persons with disabilities in an article that was published on October 13, 2009. The text of that excellent piece is here:
“I can’t believe Mayor Don Atchison would stoop so low as to scare persons with disabilities and use them to get re-elected.

In the article ‘City eyes recycling plan: mayor’ (SP, Oct. 13) Atchison said a city-run blue-box curbside recycling program would mean a tax increase of a minimum $144 per year and SARCAN Recycling workers losing their jobs ending up “out on the street.” As someone that has a disability and uses a wheelchair I find the mayor’s comments preposterous and disturbing.

SARCAN is a fine organization that does good work. It has grown to support recycling efforts in 62 Saskatchewan communities made possible through 71 recycling depots. The agency’s most recent annual report states that 2008 was a record year for deposit container returns and is the forth consecutive year that return increases have exceeded 7 per cent per year. As Saskatoon grows there’s no reason why this success story can’t continue alongside a curbside recycling program.

SARCAN had 348,679,040 container returns last year with a total of 326,671,065 deposit containers recycled, returning over $35 million in deposit refunds to the public. With impressive numbers like that it seems unlikely that residents will abandon SARCAN and forego reclaiming deposits because of a blue box program. Our household, for example, makes at least one trip to SARCAN each month to return our pop bottles and cans. That won’t change if there’s a blue box program.

In the article, Atchison said the city is studying a “unique” subsidy program involving Saskatoon Curbside Recycling, a private for profit firm, which will likely require some sort of subsidization. This means taxpayers will still be footing the bill.

It’s interesting to note that the Saskatoon Curbside Recycling website says the cost of their service is $15 per household per month, plus GST. This works out to $189 per year, which is less than the $144 a month Atchison is trying to alarm people with.

Atchison said a tax increase would be a hard hit to struggling seniors. When it comes to issues of taxation Atchison has little credibility. In the 2003 civic election he campaigned on a tax freeze. However, in each of the six years that he’s been mayor there’s been a tax increase.

In 2003, Atchison said he wanted to contract out the entire special needs transit service to the taxi industry. He tried to scare people during that election, too, saying that operating it in-house would cost the taxpayers an additional million dollars and the service would suffer. This turned out to be false. Not only that, Atchison’s plan would have made the city ineligible to receive capital funding from the province for new buses but that didn’t seem to bother him.

Atchison boasts on his campaign website that he was once a member of the city’s special needs transportation advisory committee. He said the same thing during the 2006 civic election as well. I was on the committee and according to city records he attended only one meeting in early 2000. This is hardly something to brag about.”
Do Saskatonians really want three more years of this crap?

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Premier Brad Wall lending his name and title to what appears to be a Canada West Foundation membership drive in Saskatoon

This is not just any dinner. It’s the “Premier Brad Wall Dinner.” And for $175 you can join the Bradster at the swanky Delta Bessborough Hotel on November 6, 2009, as he helps the right-wing think tank Canada West Foundation (CWF) celebrate the opening of its new regional office in Saskatoon.

“Together we can be the voice of the dreams, hopes and frustrations of Saskatchewan and western Canada,” the alleged non-partisan organization states on its website.

Each guest purchasing a ticket will automatically become a Friend of the CWF.

And for those with $2,500 burning a hole in their pocket they can purchase a table. This includes:

– Preferred seating for eight guests with one member of the CWF board

– Name recognition in program and all dinner related promotional materials

– Option to put any gifts or promotional material on dinner tables or insert in gift bags (one for each in attendance)

– One year membership to Canada West Foundation

CWF staff said in an e-mail on October 7 that any proceeds generated from the dinner will go towards the organization’s research work.

What we seem to have here is Premier Brad Wall lending his name and the power of his title to what is little more than a membership drive masquerading as a networking event to raise funds so the think tank can continue to churn out its conservative and business friendly reports.

There’s not much different from Wall’s pimping for the CWF to what Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty did earlier this year.

On June 19, the finance minister hosted a private dinner at the exclusive Albany Club in Toronto to “raise support” for a new Ottawa-based right-wing think tank called the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. The man behind the endeavour is Brian Lee Crowley, a Conservative Party contributor and the current president of the far right public policy think tank Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) in Halifax.

Flaherty reportedly circulated a letter inviting rich Bay Street types to the event saying he was giving it “my personal backing… and I hope that you will consider doing the same.”

The finance minister said Crowley’s initiative “deserves to succeed” and that he’d “like to see him return with a strong, independent and well-financed organization.”

So far there have been no reports of Wall or his staff sending out letters urging people to attend the dinner in Saskatoon.

So who’s the title sponsor of Wall’s chow down? Why, it’s an oil company of course: PetroBakken, a Calgary-based light oil exploration and production company focused on the Bakken formation in southeastern Saskatchewan.

According to an October 3, 2009, Leader-Post article the company is the result of a recent merger between Petrobank Energy and Resources Ltd.’s Canadian business unit and TriStar Oil & Gas Ltd.

And in case you didn’t know both Petrobank and TriStar are just two of the many Calgary-based energy industry corporations that have contributed more than $1.17-million to the Saskatchewan Party since 1998.

Many of Alberta’s oil and gas companies play a role in keeping the CWF well-funded. The organization’s most recent annual report shows the following energy companies as providing more than $10,000 in financial support to the think tank: EPCOR, Imperial Oil Limited, Nexen Inc., Power Corporation of Canada, and TransCanada Corporation.

Also a member of that exclusive club is N. Murray Edwards, whom the University of Saskatchewan’s Edwards School of Business is named and where the CWF Saskatoon office is located.

Listed as funders and sponsors of the CWF are EnCana Corporation, Saskatchewan Enterprise & Innovation, SaskEnergy, Shell Canada Limited, City of Regina, City of Saskatoon, Suncor Energy Foundation, Suncor Energy Inc., and TransAlta Corporation.

Last but not least is CanWest Global Communications Corp. who contributed $500-$999. CanWest owns the Leader-Post and StarPhoenix, with the latter extending special treatment to the CWF and its president, Roger Gibbins, by publishing his numerous op-eds, sometimes twice a month. The most recent examples of this are July 17 & 23 and September 11 & October 1.

Prior to joining the CWF, Gibbins — who will be at Wall’s dinner — was a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and part of a group known as the Calgary School, which included Barry Cooper, Tom Flanagan, Rainer Knopff, David Bercuson, Robert Mansell and Ted Morton. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is their friend and their colleague. At one time, they were his mentors. [Educating Stephen (The Globe and Mail, June 26, 2004)]

In 1991, Gibbins was an adviser to Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark in Brian Mulroney’s despised Tory government. [Canada could be more vibrant without Quebec, adviser says (The Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 6, 1991)]

The scary thing is with high profile elected officials now blatantly aligning themselves with certain think-tanks Canadians at some point might not be to tell who’s running the country.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Sears Canada outsources 250 Regina call centre jobs to Philippines where minimum wage in Manila is 382 pesos or $8.63 CAD per day; CEO rolling in cash

Sears Canada call centre in Regina

Approximately 250 workers lost their jobs on September 17, 2009, when Sears Canada closed its call centre in Regina.

On June 25, 2009, the company announced it was closing the call centre, which has operated since 1993, outsourcing the work to the Philippines.

Penny Smalley, who worked at the centre for 12 years, said the announcement was a “complete shock” and came with no advance warning. [Call centre shuts down (Leader-Post, September 19, 2009)]

At the time, Sears Canada director of corporate communications, Vincent Power, would not reveal the name of the company taking over the work. However, he did tell the Leader-Post it’s a Canadian firm with operations in the Philippines and that the majority of Sears’ calls will be handled by the people in that country.

According to the Leader-Post, Power said the call centre industry is facing constant technological advancements and improvements. Sears must invest in the technology or work with a third party provider that already invests in the knowledge, he said.

“We took the decision to outsource the call centre positions at Sears that are to do with basic order taking and give those to a third party provider who’s in that business all the time,” said Power. “That allows us to focus on our core business of merchandising. (The provider) will stay up to date with all the technologies.”

In other words, even though Sears had been in the business for 16 years, it seems the company didn’t want to spend the money to upgrade the equipment. It was easier to farm the work out.

Power told the newspaper another determining factor in the decision to close the call centre is that because Sears is a retailer with seasonal peaks in sales, it’s hard to schedule the hours in a call centre in an efficient manner. A third-party provider, which deals with other customers, can balance out that seasonal issue.

Again, for 16 years Sears seemed to be able to get the job done, but now it’s too difficult?

The company is offering terminated workers job search assistance, such as resume writing, and separation packages will meet provincial government standards. Power also said that providing they have the skills, associates can apply for any other Sears jobs that become available in Regina.

What this could mean is that workers will receive the bare minimum by law nothing more, nothing less. Thanks for your service and good luck. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. And with the way Sears has cut jobs over the last few years how many of those will actually find work at the Regina store?

“This move has nothing to do with the way our employees were working, or their performance. It’s just the call centre industry has changed in Canada," Power told the Leader-Post. “If we want to stay competitive and viable, and save more jobs in the long run, we’ve got to take steps like this from time to time – they’re difficult decisions though.” [250 to lose jobs as call centre closes (Leader-Post, June 26, 2009)]

So workers like Smalley are supposed to think of it as taking one for the team. Lose your job to save others.

One possible reason Power or the newspaper didn’t mention is the cost of labour and how much Sears will be saving by moving the jobs offshore where the work can be done for a fraction of the cost.

Baylosis and Culangen, a law firm providing legal services to international corporations, small and medium enterprises and individuals in the Philippines, says on its website that the country “is the second largest outsourcing center in the world and a viable source of cheap and reliable labor for any business.”

The Philippine Department of Labour and Employment website notes that the minimum wage for workers in the non-agricultural sector in the capital Manila is 382 pesos per day. This works out to about $8.63 Canadian – a day. In sectors such as retail or service it’s 345 pesos per day or $7.79 Canadian. In other regions of the country it’s a lot less. Could this be the real reason why Sears Canada moved the jobs half way around the world?

Meanwhile, at Sears Canada headquarters in Toronto, CEO Dene Rogers seems to be making money hand over fist.

The company’s most recent management information circular states that Rogers was appointed as the president and chief executive officer of the corporation on December 21, 2006. Prior to this appointment, Rogers held the position of acting president since May 9, 2006. From October 2005 until December 2006, he served as the executive vice president, restructuring and business development of Sears Holdings. Previous to this position, Rogers served as the executive vice president and general manager of Kmart Holding Corporation from October 2003 until October 2005.

In just three years Rogers’s total compensation appears to have increased 67 per cent going from $2,084,872 in 2006 to $3,491,440 in 2008. His company pension payable at age 65 is already $26,600 and the total value of his Sears Registered Retirement Plan (SRRP) and Supplementary Retirement Plan (SRP) at year end is $146,000.

Rogers’s annual compensation is based on U.S. currency, as per his current employment agreement. Prior to this his compensation was paid in Canadian funds.

The employment agreement between Rogers and Sears Canada was revised in 2008 and became effective on October 1, 2008. The agreement has a term of three years (October 1, 2008 to October 1, 2011) with an option to extend the agreement for an additional twelve (12) month period by the mutual agreement of the corporation and Rogers.

Under his employment agreement, Rogers is entitled to an annual base salary of $700,000 U.S. per annum, which will be reviewed periodically.

As a result of the current economic conditions, Rogers took a 15% voluntary salary reduction and effective March 1, 2009, his salary is $595,000 U.S. per annum.

When you consider how much Rogers made in 2008 the $105,000 pay cut is miniscule, representing just 3 per cent of his total compensation. You can bet he will make that back in no time.

Rogers’ employment agreement with Sears Canada provides for termination payments in the event his employment with the corporation is terminated.

If he’s terminated by the corporation without just cause prior to October 1, 2010, Rogers may be entitled to a total cash compensation of $3,233,895. If the termination occurs after October 1, 2010, the cash compensation could be as much as $4,120,800.

The information circular doesn’t say whether Rogers would be offered job search assistance or help with updating his resume as part of his termination package.

Even if Rogers were to quit outright on or after October 1, 2010, he could still get $1,717,000.

That’s not bad for a guy whose company’s total revenue has decreased each year since he’s joined: $5.93-billion in 2006, $5.84-billion in 2007, and $5.73-billion in 2008. Interestingly, in two of those years Sears recorded two of its highest net profits this decade: $304-million in 2007 and $289-million in 2008. And that’s what probably matters the most – the bottom line.

Since 2000, Sears Canada’s total revenue has fallen 9.8 per cent. The most startling number, however, is the number of workers that have been jettisoned. In 2000, the company had more than 56,300 full and part-time associates. By 2008 that number had dwindled to just 32,626, a drop of 42 per cent.

And if that weren’t enough the information circular notes that one Sears Canada senior executive appeared to receive nearly $19,000 last year to pay for a leased vehicle.

It would take a lowly associate working full-time for a nearly a year at $10 per hour to gross that much. Then again it would take a worker in Manila making minimum wage six years non-stop to make the same amount.

Business weasels see it as a “competitive advantage,” while others might call it something else, like greed and exploitation.