Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hon. Rob Merrifield, Minister of State for Transport, ducking questions on new art gallery; City of Saskatoon denying access to more Mendel records

The federal minister in charge of Saskatchewan infrastructure is now officially a part of the disgraceful controversy over the City of Saskatoon’s plan to move the Mendel Art Gallery.

Rob Merrifield, the minister of state for transport, is ducking questions from the public about the proposed new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan to be located at the city’s troubled River Landing development.

Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel board chair Art Knight announced the plan at a press conference held April 3, 2009, in Saskatoon. Those attending the event received copies of a media release and four-page glossy brochure.

The brochure stated that the Mendel, city, provincial and federal governments had “come to the conclusion a new building” was required. The decision was reached behind closed doors. The public, the Mendel family, supporters and donors were never consulted.

Two weeks earlier, on March 18, 2009, Atchison sent the same brochure to Saskatchewan’s then Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport Minister, Christine Tell, and to Saskatoon’s four Conservative MPs: Lynne Yelich, Brad Trost, Kelly Block and Maurice Vellacott.

Clearly all the major players knew what was happening.

On September 23, 2009, the federal government announced that it was setting aside $13.02-million for the River Landing Destination Centre, which will include the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. The total estimated cost of the project is $58 million.

The federal contribution would come from the major infrastructure component (MIC) of the Building Canada Fund delivered by Infrastructure Canada (INFC).

If funding is secured under MIC it is likely Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) will be the implementing department for INFC.

During the six month stretch from March 18 to September 23, 2009, no one at INFC or WD spoke publically about the project. Saskatoon residents have not been told who specifically at the federal level were involved in the discussions that lead to the decision to pursue a new building and abandon the long-planned expansion and renovation of the Mendel.

With this in mind an e-mail was sent to Merrifield on September 9, 2009, asking the following questions:

1) What are the names of the federal government officials that came to the conclusion a new building is the best fit for Saskatoon?

2) On what date was this conclusion reached and is it documented?

3) If no federal officials came to this conclusion then why does the brochure imply that the federal government has concluded that a new building is the best fit for Saskatoon?

Shortly thereafter, records obtained from Infrastructure Canada revealed that on April 1, 2009, department officials received an enquiry from a StarPhoenix reporter asking whether the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan or Mendel Art Gallery would qualify for Building Canada funding.

INFC told the StarPhoenix that not only would the new gallery be potentially eligible but so would the expansion previously proposed for the Mendel.

Given this new information a second e-mail was sent to Merrifield on September 17, 2009, asking him to explain why INFC staff told the StarPhoenix that the expansion and renovation of the Mendel Art Gallery was still a “potentially eligible project” when the four partners had already decided on a new building.

Merrifield finally responded on November 10, 2009, but only to the first e-mail, and he didn’t bother to address any of the questions either:
“Dear Mr. Kuchta:

Thank you for your electronic correspondence of September 9, 2009, regarding the proposed new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

The Government of Canada received in June 2009 an official project proposal from the City of Saskatoon for the Destination Centre, which would include the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.

On September 23, 2009, the Government of Canada announced that it would be setting aside up to one-third of eligible costs, to a maximum federal contribution of $13.02 million for the Destination Centre project, conditional on the project meeting all applicable eligibility and approval requirements under the federal government's infrastructure plan, and on the signing of a contribution agreement.

I, along with my officials, continue to work in collaboration with the Government of Saskatchewan and the City of Saskatoon, with the goal of creating a modern public infrastructure for the community.


Hon. Rob Merrifield, P.C., M.P.”
It seems obvious that Merrifield had no intention whatsoever of answering any straight-forward questions on the subject. The only thing he said that can be considered ‘new information’ is that the city submitted its “official project proposal” in June 2009. The local media did not report this.

On another front, the City of Saskatoon has once again denied access to Mendel related records.

A freedom of information form was submitted to the city clerk’s office on September 18, 2009, requesting copies of any letters, e-mails, or memorandums concerning the Mendel or new art gallery from May 1, 2009, to September 18, 2009. The request was limited to the mayor’s office, the city manager’s office, and the special project manager.

The city responded on October 22, 2009, saying a total of eight records – one memo and seven e-mails – responsive to the request were found but that access to them was being denied.

The Mendel Art Gallery is publicly owned and operated. Yet at every turn secrecy seems to trump the public’s right to know what’s going on.


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