Monday, September 14, 2009

Western Economic Diversification email suggests backroom deal between city and Mendel board to move gallery; StarPhoenix hypocrisy stunning

It’s been more than five months since Mayor Don Atchison and Mendel Art Gallery board chair Art Knight announced on April 3, 2009, that construction of a new $55-million art gallery at River Landing, to be known as the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan (AGS), is being proposed for federal infrastructure funding. The long-planned expansion and renovation of the present facility would be abandoned. The proposal was developed in secret. The Mendel family, gallery members, donors and the public were not consulted.

No sooner was the press conference over than the discussions moved back behind closed-doors. The public has been shut out every step of the way.

In an editorial on September 12, 2009, The StarPhoenix lambasted Saskatoon city council for conducting an in-camera meeting on September 8, 2009, with library board members and city employees to review a $50-million plan to expand the Frances Morrison Library.

City officials later said it was mistake to hold the meeting in private and the plans were released to the public. But that didn’t keep the newspaper from weighing in.

“These plans -- and the discussions surrounding them -- never should have been kept out of the public eye,” the editorial said.

“An issue should only be discussed in-camera if it involves collective bargaining, personnel matters, legal opinions and land negotiations. This project falls into none of these categories.”

The editorial also stated, “It can be uncomfortable to develop ideas and policy under the scrutiny of the public eye. Criticism at early stages of planning can seem unfair, but discomfiture is not a good enough reason to go behind closed doors.”

And finally this: “The public… should have access to all the debate and input that leads to decisions on the development of publicly owned property.”

However, when it comes to the Mendel Art Gallery and the proposed new Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, both of which involve publicly owned property, The StarPhoenix, won’t advocate for the same openness and transparency. In an editorial on April 4, 2009, just one day after the Atchison-Knight press conference, the newspaper said it supported the move – end of discussion. The hypocrisy is stunning.

Since April 3, 2009, the city and Mendel management have denied access to records on the subject. At the provincial level the Ministry of Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport have disclosed some records but are refusing to grant access to a significant number of others.

The federal government has released several records, mostly emails, some of which paint a disturbing picture.

A record obtained from Western Economic Diversification Canada (WD) through an access to information request appears to contradict Mayor Don Atchison’s version of events leading up to the April 3 press conference.

On April 22, 2009, the mayor hosted a volunteer appreciation banquet at TCU Place in recognition of citizens that volunteer their time to serve on the city’s various committees, boards and commissions.

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

However, an April 7, 2009, email from WD’s manager of infrastructure programs, Deanne Belisle, to WD assistant deputy minister Sharon Lee Smith confirms that, “the Mendel Art Gallery was placed on the City of Saskatoon’s proposed list for funding under Building Canada Fund – Major Infrastructure Component, but was 6th or 7th in priority. The City’s stipulation for giving the Mendel higher priority was that it agree to move to River Landing location. The Mendel Board announced its acceptance of this requirement on April 3, 2009. Presumably, it is now of sufficient priority to be considered for [Major Infrastructure Component] funding.”

So there it is a backroom deal where it seems the city basically strong armed the Mendel board into selling out its expansion and renovation plans in exchange for a higher priority.

If WD knows this then chances are so does the provincial government and maybe even one or two other federal departments. Someone has a lot of explaining to do.

There is one problem with Belisle’s email. The city’s stipulation was never made public. The only information that’s been made available to the public is a news release, a glossy brochure, and a misleading two-page fact sheet. None of these discuss the city’s requirement.

The same goes for Art Knight’s op-ed that was published in The StarPhoenix on April 4, 2009. He never mentioned it.

Just as troubling is the fact that the Mendel was placed so low on the city’s list of priorities that it risked being passed over for federal funding.

Like famed New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà-vu all over again.”

On December 8, 2005, during the federal centennial funding fiasco, the then city manager, Phil Richards, submitted to WD the city’s list of priorities for the $10-million grant. The Mendel was listed third behind the Victoria Bridge and Persephone Theatre and ahead of the River Landing Phase I Riverfront Park.

WD warned the city beforehand that the bridge might not be appropriate for funding, but the city went ahead and submitted it anyway. Furthermore, the city does not own Persephone Theatre and yet was allowed to include it on its list of priorities.

On March 24, 2006, the then WD Minister, Carol Skelton, announced the winners of the funding sweepstakes: Saskatoon Prairieland Park Corporation, Riverfront Park in River Landing, Persephone Theatre, and Wanuskewin Heritage Park Authority.

The Mendel got shafted.

On December 12, 2005, Saskatoon city council approved the Mendel’s expansion and renovation plans. To this day the gallery is being promoted as “a Saskatchewan treasure” and “Saskatoon’s premier destination for contemporary and historical art” in brochures distributed throughout the city. And yet city council continues to resist making it a top priority.

On January 8, 2009, Atchison and Knight sent a letter to then Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport Minister Christine Tell telling her that the expansion and renovation of the Mendel is a “worthy and important project” and that they were “confident” it “will be successful.” But their actions seem to betray that sentiment.

On July 22, 2009, Belisle sent an email to Smith and Martin Chicilo, WD’s manager of policy, planning and external relations, regarding criticisms by a private citizen of the city’s decision to move the Mendel to River Landing.

“It is important to have the complete picture – there is a lot of support for moving the Art Gallery instead of spending the same $ or more to make necessary renovations at the current location,” Belisle said.

It appears Belisle, Smith and Chicilo work at WD’s office in Saskatoon. This makes the story even more disturbing because some of the information they’re sharing with each other seems wildly inaccurate.

The City of Saskatoon’s 2009 capital budget clearly states that the “total cost of [the Mendel] renovation/expansion project, including preliminary design, detailed design and construction is $24,000,000.” This is significantly lower than the $55-million being touted for the new gallery.

The budget document approved by city council on December 15, 2008, also 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.” Apparently, this is of little value to federal officials.

Belisle’s email does not say where the support for moving the gallery is coming from. What is indisputable is that the majority of letters published in The StarPhoenix and received by city council are against the plan.

As for not having “the complete picture” this is something the public is being denied access to. As mentioned earlier the city, Mendel management and provincial government are withholding a significant amount of important information. Openness and transparency are virtually non-existent.

Records obtained recently from Infrastructure Canada (INFC) show the department was caught off guard when The StarPhoenix reported on April 1, 2009, that a new gallery to replace the Mendel was being proposed.

Jennifer Dawson, the executive director of portfolio management with Transport Canada, sent an email to Janet Alexander, an executive assistant with INFC’s assistant deputy minister’s office, that said, “Hi Janet: Have we received anything to request funding for a new art gallery in Saskatoon (or for that matter, expansion of the existing Mandel [sic] gallery).”

“This doesn’t sound familiar to me. Have you got anything?” replied Alexander.

In another email, Vanessa Vermette, an executive assistant with INFC’s policy and priorities directorate, asked Denis Michaud, a policy analyst, and Michael Rutherford, the director of priority initiatives, if they had any information on the new gallery.

Michaud responded by sending the other two a ‘Hot Issues Note’ that he prepared in January.

“It basically says that we have not received information on this project and that what we have so far was provided to us by [Canadian Heritage],” he said.

Unfortunately, the document Michaud forwarded to his co-workers pertains only to the Mendel’s expansion and renovation plans and not the new gallery.

Michaud’s report does, however, contain one piece of intriguing information. In it, he states: “Infrastructure Canada has not received a formal project proposal for the expansion and renovation of the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon as of January 8, 2009.”

As background, Canadian Heritage regional program manager, Claudette Novak, advised Mendel executive director and CEO Vincent Varga in a letter dated June 9, 2008, that “in light of the limited availability of funds through the [Cultural Spaces program]” the gallery should “pursue funding under the Building Canada Fund.”

According to media reports an application for funding was indeed submitted but the city hadn’t heard back.

The November 20, 2008, StarPhoenix article ‘Mendel backer frustrated’ reported that the gallery was “awaiting word on its $7.6-million request from the federal Canada Builds program.”

This raises at least a few questions:

– Why didn’t Mendel management submit a formal project proposal to Infrastructure Canada for the expansion and renovation of the gallery prior to January 8, 2009?

– Was a formal project proposal for the expansion and renovation of the Mendel submitted to Infrastructure Canada after January 8, 2009? If not, why not?

– Did Infrastructure Canada, at any time, ask the city or Mendel management to submit, or if it intended to submit, a formal project proposal for the expansion and renovation of the gallery? If the answer is yes, what was the city’s response?

Additionally, at the press conference on April 3, 2009, a four-page glossy brochure on the proposed new art gallery was distributed. Page one notes: “We’ve fully explored the implications of expanding our old home. With our partners in the City, Provincial and Federal governments, we have come to the conclusion a new building is the best fit for Saskatoon’s expanding future and our city’s amazing new urban riverfront.”

– Which federal government officials were involved in reaching this conclusion and on what date did it occur?

On April 1, 2009, Infrastructure Canada received a media inquiry from a reporter with The StarPhoenix. The request was given ‘high’ importance.

Department officials quickly prepared a three-page Q & A for the newspaper. Under the question, ‘Would the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan (or the Mendell [sic] Gallery) qualify for BCF funding?’ it states:

“The department has not received a request for funding for a new art gallery in Saskatoon, however this type of project may qualify for funding under the cultural infrastructure category. A project proposal could be reviewed against the criteria and conditions for these types of projects under the Building Canada plan.

“The expansion previously proposed for the Mendell [sic] Gallery is also a potentially eligible project, but again, a project review would be required to determine this.”

This is important because it establishes that, at the time, the federal government was still willing to consider the expansion and renovation of the Mendel, or so we think, because it also appears to contradict the glossy brochure which suggests that all four partners have already decided on a new building.

The public deserves answers. And lots of them.

Infrastructure Canada ‘Hot Issues Note’ (January 2009)

Below are the Articles of Incorporation for The Art Gallery of Saskatchewan Inc., which was incorporated as a non-profit organization on July 9, 2009. The mayor and all 10 ward councillors are directors. The public was never told that the gallery had been incorporated.

The name of the new entity implies provincial designation, and yet, it’s been incorporated as a civic gallery.

On August 28, 2009, the city clerk’s office advised that there was no formal resolution of the executive committee with respect to incorporating the new gallery. The committee was made aware of the plan to incorporate, but it is unknown as to when that occurred since it was done informally.

The Articles of Incorporation for the new gallery were signed by Donald Atchison, who is listed as the incorporator. His title as mayor was not used.

According to Section 8 of the Articles it appears that the new board may have met at least once already.


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