Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mendel expansion and renovation ‘worthy and important’: Atchison & Knight; Infrastructure Canada violates federal law; MVA won’t release CEO reports

The expansion and renovation of the Mendel Art Gallery is a “worthy and important project” that “will be successful.” That’s what Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel board chair Art Knight told Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport (TPCS) Minister Christine Tell in a letter dated January 8, 2009.

Signed by Atchison and Knight and sent on the mayor’s letterhead, the letter is the most convincing evidence yet that there is nothing wrong with the gallery’s long-held renovation plans.

However, at a press conference just twelve weeks later on April 3, 2009, Atchison and Knight announced plans to change the gallery’s name and move it to a proposed new $55 million building to be located at River Landing. The expansion and renovation of the current facility would be abandoned. One reason given for the sudden change in direction was that both the city and art gallery had somehow, almost overnight, outgrown those plans. This ignores the fact that the city’s 2009 capital budget, which was approved December 15, 2008, states, “The Mendel’s ten-year capital plan addresses both the existing facility needs and the required capacity to see it through the next 30 to 40 years of operation.”

In the letter to Tell, which was obtained from TPCS under the province’s freedom of information legislation, Atchison and Knight requested a one year extension of the existing Building Communities Program agreement between the province and the Mendel for the gallery’s renovation and expansion project.

The letter states that the agreement includes “a provision that funds provided become immediately repayable by the Recipient if “construction contract award and/or project construction does not occur or begin before April 1, 2009.””

Atchison and Knight asked for an extension of the deadline to April 1, 2010.

“While we are confident that this worthy and important project will be successful, it is clear that the contract deadline cannot be met and it is for this reason that a one-year extension is requested,” they said.

The letter is also important because it confirms that the $4,092,877 the city received from the province on July 18, 2007, was specifically for the expansion and renovation of the Mendel Art Gallery and not for a new gallery to be located at River Landing.

Gerald Beaton, a senior policy analyst with TCPS, responded to the request for an extension with an email to Mendel executive director Vincent Varga on February 13, 2009, asking for more information.

“In order to allow us to review this request based on the best information available, we would like to get a current project status update. I’ve therefore attached a form that I’d ask you to complete and return to me. This will help us better understand the status of your project and the most likely scenario in terms of how it will proceed.

Once this is done, we will review the information and proceed accordingly,” Beaton said.

Varga replied shortly after saying the Mendel would respond to the request as soon as possible.

On the morning of April 20, 2009, TPCS received a phone call from Atchison’s office concerned that the city hadn’t received a reply to the January 8 letter to Minister Tell.

Later that day Beaton sent an email to TPCS assistant deputy minister Scott Langen outlining a proposed response to the city. Beaton also provided Langen with a “summary of events for TPCS background information only.”

“We did receive the January 8, 2009 letter from Mayor Donald Atchison and Dr. Arthur Knight requesting a contract extension,” Beaton said.

“On February 13, 2009, after discussion with Howard Janzen of the Mendel, we contacted the Mendel (Vincent Varga & Howard Janzen) and copied Art Knight, asking them to provide a project update that would allow to better understand their project and determine the best course of action.

“On March 24, 2009, TPCS received this information (dated March 16, 2009).

“On March 27, 2009, Mendel clarified one item from March 24 package. No mention was made of the newly proposed Art Gallery of Saskatchewan project in the project update received.”

Unfortunately, the next two paragraphs of Beaton’s email were blacked out by TPCS officials.

It almost seems as if the city and Mendel management were moving on two fronts simultaneously: the expansion and renovation plans; and, the new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan.

In the article New canvas for gallery (StarPhoenix, Apr. 4, 2009) it was reported that the Mendel board of trustees on March 14, 2009, “approved in principle” pursuing the construction of a new art gallery at River Landing. It appears this important information was omitted from the project update that Mendel management sent to TPCS on March 16 and March 27, 2009. It begs the question, why did Mendel management not want to talk about the new gallery with TPCS officials?

Another week went by before TPCS finally responded to Atchison and Knight’s January 8 request for an extension.

In a letter to Mendel board chair Art Knight dated April 28, 2009, TPCS deputy minister Scott Langen officially acknowledges that “the public ceremony on April 3, 2009 announcing the city’s intention to pursue the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan at River Landing has put the status of the original project in question.”

Langen continues: “The existing BCP contract does not explicitly end on April 1, 2009; rather, it provides the ministry the ability to, ‘at its option’, have funds returned if the contract award and/or project construction does not occur or begin before April 1, 2009. At this time, the ministry does not intend to exercise its option to have these funds returned.

“Given the current status of the potential Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, TPCS will wait until further information is received regarding the direction and financial status of the Mendel Art Gallery project before pursuing any potential amendments or formal extension to the existing contract.”

Langen’s non-committal tone seems to be at odds with an undated briefing note prepared for Minister Tell outlining the ministry’s “Key Messages” on the proposed new art gallery.

The briefing note, released by TPCS under an earlier freedom of information request, states: “The Government of Saskatchewan appreciates the long-standing need for better facilities for Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery and sees the advantages of this proposal to build a new permanent home for the gallery.”

As of July 20, 2009, neither the ministry nor the city has publicly stated whether the Building Communities Program agreement will be amended or extended.

Beaton’s emails and the Atchison-Knight and Langen letters described above are the extent of the records that were disclosed by TPCS in response to an access to information request submitted to the ministry on May 1, 2009.

On July 7, 2009, TPCS advised further that four records totaling approximately 17-pages are being withheld from release in their entirety.

The refusal by the Mendel, the city, and the provincial government to release critical information is creating a situation where it’s becoming difficult, if not impossible, to piece together a complete picture of this ugly and disturbing story.

Then there is the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to talk about: the federal government. As the biggest potential funding source federal officials have not said one word publicly on the subject. In fact, one department’s silence has already broken the law.

On April 15, 2009, an access to information request was submitted to Infrastructure Canada (IC) for copies of any records from January 1, 2009, to April 15, 2009, regarding or relating to the Mendel Art Gallery. IC received the request on April 23, 2009.

On May 15, 2009, IC advised that a 30-day extension was applied to the request in order to conduct external consultations. Under federal law IC had until June 23, 2009, to complete the request. As of July 20, 2009, that requirement has not been met. IC has broken the law but does not seem to care. Several attempts have been made to ascertain the status of the request but the only response from the department was on July 3, 2009, when IC’s access to information and privacy coordinator, Sylvie Plourde, said in an email that the request was “in the final approval process stage and hopefully will be completed shortly.” That was nearly three weeks ago.

A similar request was sent to Canadian Heritage on June 24, 2009. The department received the request on June 29, 2009. There has been no further response.

It’s interesting to note that another request made to TPCS in June has yielded a copy of a third-party notification letter sent by the City of Saskatoon to TPCS deputy minister S.P. Isman asking that a letter from Mayor Atchison to Minister Tell “not be released.”

In the letter dated May 7, 2009, the city argues that releasing the correspondence “could jeopardize on-going negotiations with the Provincial and Federal Governments regarding funding for the proposed Art Gallery of Saskatchewan on River Landing. Once discussions are finished, and a decision made regarding funding, (which will likely occur before the end of June) we would have no problem in releasing this document.”

The record in question appears to be a March 18, 2009, letter from Atchison to Tell summarizing information regarding the proposed new gallery. TPCS is refusing to release the letter.

What’s interesting is the stunning revelation that the city was expecting a federal funding decision by the end of June! Nearly three weeks into July, however, no announcements have been made. This could be the reason why Infrastructure Canada is stalling on finalizing the aforementioned freedom of information request.

But that’s not all. There’s another player in this sorry tale that is refusing to disclose various records as well.

On June 16, 2009, an access to information request was made to the Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) for copies of CEO Susan Lamb’s reports to the board for its April 3 and May 1, 2009, meetings. The request also asked for copies of any correspondence between Meewasin and the federal government from April 5, 2009, to June 16, 2009, regarding or relating to the options being considered for a new MVA centre, including the Mendel Art Gallery site.

On July 16, 2009, Meewasin advised that access to Lamb’s reports was denied. The two records total 17-pages of information. According to the minutes of the April & May MVA board meetings the Mendel issue was discussed at both.

As for the correspondence between Meewasin and the federal government two records were disclosed: an April 6, 2009, email from the MVA to Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) advising that the Meewasin board had decided to investigate the option “of renovating the Mendel Art Gallery” for a new Meewasin Valley Centre; and an April 9, 2009, letter from WD Minister Lynne Yelich to CEO Susan Lamb concerning the eligibility of the MVA project to renovate its current building under the Building Canada Plan.

On July 16, 2009, Meewasin’s director of operations, Gwen Charman, confirmed that there was no correspondence between the MVA and the federal government from April 10, 2009, to June 16, 2009, on the issue.

“As we reported to the media at the time, Meewasin did preliminary investigations on the feasibility of a Mendel option, which turned out favourably in terms of the capacity of that building to meet Meewasin program requirements. We have not made further application to the federal government in that regard. It is my understanding, as a staff person here, that it is premature for Meewasin to pursue the Mendel site option further until the Mendel makes its own decisions about the building they now occupy. To date the Mendel announced a project in progress to move out of that building, but there are still many additional decisions required by the Mendel and the City before the old Mendel building would actually be available to Meewasin,” Charman said in an email.

The Mendel, the city, and the provincial and federal governments are remaining silent about the project. The strategy has and continues to be near total secrecy. One thing is certain, though. And that is the public is being asked to believe the Mendel’s long-standing expansion and renovation plans are no good, when in fact both the mayor and board chair said just three months ago it’s a “worthy and important project” that “will be successful.” It’s time for the parties involved to stop playing politics and get the Mendel project going.


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