Friday, January 01, 2010

Mendel board chair Art Knight failing to answer questions; City refusing access to steering committee minutes and Mayor Don Atchison’s daily planner

Letter from Mendel board chair Art Knight, Dec. 14, 2009

For the past nine months the Mendel Art Gallery and the City of Saskatoon have operated under extreme secrecy about the process behind the decision to move the gallery to River Landing by keeping an iron grip on information, through endless denials of requests for records, censoring/redacting documents, or simply refusing to answer questions.

A recent example of this appalling behaviour comes courtesy of Mendel board chair Art Knight.

On December 6, 2009, a letter was sent to Knight asking four simple questions about comments attributed to him by the media following his November 30, 2009, presentation to city council; and, also about the four-page colour brochure that was distributed at the April 3, 2009, press conference announcing the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan in which he was a participant. The questions were:

1) Who advised the Mendel that its renovation plan “wasn’t going to fly” and when was the advice given?

2) What were the time constraints that forced the Mendel “to make the decision to make use of the federal money” and who imposed them?

3) What is the exact date of the brochure and who was the author?

4) What date did the Mendel, the city, the provincial and federal governments “come to the conclusion that a new building” was needed and which federal officials were involved in reaching that decision?

Knight responded in a letter dated December 14, 2009, stating:
“This is to acknowledge your letter of December 6, 2009.

“I can advise that the Mendel Art Gallery provided City Council with all the information it wished.

“Furthermore, I wish to inform you that I will not enter into further correspondence with you in this matter.”
Knight failed to answer any questions and appears to have no intention of doing so. The level of contempt and arrogance shown is breathtaking.

This is the second time the Mendel has refused to provide information. The gallery’s executive director and CEO, Vincent Varga, on April 9 and 23, 2009, denied requests for copies of the agenda and minutes for the board of trustees’ March 14, 2009, meeting. It was at that meeting that trustees approved in principle pursuing the construction of a new art gallery at River Landing.

The gallery is city owned and taxpayer funded. The city subsidy to the gallery in 2009 was $2.06-million and yet those in charge seem to think they are beyond the public’s reach and not obliged to answer questions or provide information.

Equally appalling is the city’s lack of openness and transparency.

On September 28, 2009, a freedom of information (FOI) request was submitted for copies of Mayor Don Atchison’s daily planner for the dates on which any meetings occurred in his office with representatives of the Mendel Art Gallery since December 1, 2008. The city clerk denied the request on December 4, 2009, stating: “My position is that daily planners are not a “record” of the municipality and are therefore not subject to the provisions of The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.”

An informal, follow-up request was made to the city on December 18, 2009, asking only for the dates of any meetings – not copies of any records. This request was turned down as well. In an email dated December 21, 2009, the city clerk informed: “You can always ask any department or office of the City for information, outside of the FOI process. However, in this case I took the liberty of checking with the Mayor’s Office as to whether they would be willing to respond to your question, and was advised that they would not.”

Evidence suggests that Atchison met with Mendel representatives more than once. In a letter dated March 6, 2009, Mendel board chair Art Knight and gallery CEO Vincent Varga request a meeting with the mayor and allude to an earlier one held in his office.

“Since our last meeting in your office the realities of the current global and national circumstances have changed significantly. We would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to discuss in a realistic and pragmatic fashion how the Mendel can proceed with its rejuvenation and contribute to the aspirations of the City of Saskatoon at River Landing,” Knight and Varga said.

“We are anxious to meet with to seek your advice on how together we can deliver a renewed Art Gallery that furthers the future oriented vision for Saskatoon. We look forward to meeting with you at your convenience.”

Unfortunately, according to the city clerk’s December 4, 2009, letter, the mayor’s office has no written notes, minutes, memorandums or letters for any meetings between the parties making it impossible to know what was said or in what context. Also a mystery is whether Knight and Varga were directed by the Mendel board to seek a meeting with the mayor. If they were, the date of the board meeting where the issue was discussed has not been made public.

On December 1, 2009, an access to information request was submitted to the city for the following records:

1) Copies of the minutes to any Destination Centre Steering Committee meetings since its inception; and,

2) Copies of any reports prepared by the Destination Centre Steering Committee since its inception; and,

3) Copies of any city administrative reports received by the Destination Centre Steering Committee since its inception; and,

4) Copies of any correspondence, including attachments, between the City of Saskatoon and Lundholm Associates Architecture since September 1, 2009.

The city clerk advised on December 14, 2009, that the steering committee prepared no reports nor did it receive any from city administration.

With respect to correspondence between the city and Lundholm Associates Architects, the Toronto-based consultant hired by the city at a cost of up to $150,000 to prepare a functional program plan for the Destination Centre, the city is refusing to disclose the contents of four emails.

As for the minutes, the city clerk released the cover page for each meeting but severed the bodies of the minutes, which amount to 16-pages of information that is being withheld.

At its January 14, 2008, meeting, city council approved a River Landing Destination Centre Consultation Process that included establishing a volunteer steering committee “to make a recommendation on a preferred outline concept for the Destination Centre including uses, size, capital cost and potential funding sources, preliminary operating costs, how the Centre should be operated, and an implementation schedule. The Committee should complete this work within four months of its inception and provide a progress report to Council once a month.”

On April 7, 2008, council appointed 13 individuals to the River Landing Destination Centre Steering Committee, including Mendel board chair Art Knight, Meewasin Valley Authority CEO Susan Lamb, and Persephone Theatre president Nicki Kiteley, all of whom appear to be in a conflict of interest given that their respective organizations have an interest in the outcome.

The steering committee met in secret a total of eight times: March 28, 2008; April 11, 2008; June 20, 2008; October 3, 2008; October 31, 2008; December 5, 2008; April 1, 2009; and, April 29, 2009.

It’s interesting to note that the committee’s first meeting was held before city council officially appointed the members. Furthermore, it wasn’t until November 30, 2009, that city council received a report from administration providing details of the committee’s deliberations – a full seven months after the committee’s final meeting.

Additionally, for the committee’s first six meetings Knight was listed as a representative of the Mendel Art Gallery. However, in the final two meetings he was identified as “a proponent only” representing the Saskatoon Gallery and Conservatory Corporation. In an email dated December 2, 2009, the city’s special projects manager, Sandi Schultz, refused to provide the date on which the Mendel became a proponent saying the “details of the Steering Committee meetings are confidential.”

In the report to council, administration also states: “The Steering Committee, during its first round of consideration, asked if there was interest from the Mendel Art Gallery and the Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) in locating to the proposed Destination Centre. Both organizations indicated that they had no interest in relocating to the Destination Centre, but instead suggested that they preferred to renovate their existing spaces. However, the Art Gallery has reconsidered their earlier decision and approached the City in early 2009 regarding pursuit of construction of a new gallery at River Landing. The Mendel Art Gallery subsequently submitted a proposal to the Steering Committee for consideration.”

As mentioned earlier Mendel management and the city are refusing to disclose a significant number of records leaving the public with little choice but to condemn the process and view it as being untrustworthy.

The administrative report also notes that: “The Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) CEO confirmed that the MVA is interested in exploring, with the City, the opportunity to relocate the Meewasin Centre program to the Mendel Art Gallery location, should the space become available. The Administration, in a separate report, will identify for City Council resolution, the future use of the Mendel Art Gallery building and grounds.”

Several city council members have already voiced their support for the MVA relocating to the Mendel building once it’s vacated. In short the process appears to be a fait accompli and is just as dirty and suspect as the gallery’s situation.

On April 7, 2009, the StarPhoenix reported city councillor Darren Hill, a member of the Meewasin board, as saying that all four councillors on the Meewasin board (Mayor Don Atchison, Councillors Charlie Clark and Glen Penner) are in favour of moving to a vacated Mendel Art Gallery.

Hill estimated it would cost no more than $1 million to relocate and renovate the Mendel, plus around $2 million to set up exhibits in the interpretive centre. He also said the present building would likely be demolished if the MVA moves out. [MVA eyes Mendel site (StarPhoenix, April 7, 2009)]

At the provincial level, an access to information request was made to Saskatchewan Tourism, Parks, Culture and Sport (TPCS) on September 25, 2009, for a number of records including copies of any briefing notes from May 1, 2009, to July 7, 2009, regarding the Mendel or proposed new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.

On December 18, 2009, TPCS granted partial access to a four-page June 26, 2009, briefing note titled “Mendel Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.” However, ministry staff heavily censored the record by redacting nearly three pages of information. Briefing notes are a key to understanding how and why decisions are made. The public is being denied this critical information.

And finally, on December 22, 2009, the Saskatchewan Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC) issued the results of a review conducted on whether the Saskatoon Gallery and Conservatory Corporation (a.k.a. Mendel Art Gallery) is a ‘local authority’ for the purposes of The Local Authority Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The OIPC determined that the gallery is not a local authority and therefore is not subject to the province’s freedom of information legislation. Unfortunately, what this means is that the gallery is essentially free to hide as much information from the public as it pleases, which appears to be exactly what gallery officials are doing.

Letter to Mendel board chair Art Knight, Dec. 6, 2009

Letter from City Clerk re: Mayor's Daily Planner, Dec. 4, 2009

Email from City Clerk re: Mayor-Mendel meeting dates, Dec. 21, 2009

Letter from Knight and Varga to Mayor Atchison, Mar. 6, 2009

Letter from City Clerk re: Steering Committee, Dec. 14, 2009

Email from Special Projects Manager re: Mendel, Dec. 2, 2009

Destination Centre Steering Committee minutes, Mar. 28, 2008

Destination Centre Steering Committee minutes, Apr. 29, 2009

Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport briefing note, June 26, 2009

Letter from SK Information and Privacy Commissioner, Dec. 22, 2009


Post a Comment

<< Home