Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Bjornson Deserves Failing Grade on Seven Oaks Land Deal

The following article e-mailed to us by Jeff Niederhoffer. Jeff is a Winnipeg lawyer and political activist. Here is what he had to say:

Since 2002, the Seven Oaks School Division in Manitoba has arguably been breaking the law. As has been reported, the School Division spent $2 million of taxpayers’ money to develop vacant land into 70 residential lots, which the school division then sold for $2.7 million. Since the provincial Public Schools Act expressly forbids school divisions from developing and selling residential property, this is not a difficult legal question to resolve. Impartial observers would generally agree that the school division has violated the Public Schools Act.

All of this would have made an interesting story in its own right, but what makes it more interesting is the fact that officials in the Manitoba Department of Education not only knew about the land deal but, incredibly, gave formal approval to the school division to proceed.

It is interesting, to say the least, that provincial education bureaucrats were not familiar with the Public Schools Act. Then again, there was nobody who told them they had to be. Throughout this whole episode, the Minister of Education, Peter Bjornson, was invisible. For two years, neither Bjornson nor his staff was aware there even was an issue with the land deal. In mid-2004, bureaucrats finally brought Bjornson up to speed – and provided him the inexplicable opinion that the school division's actions were legal. As Bjornson later publicly admitted, he passively accepted what his officials told him. He made no effort to scrutinize what he was told, nor did he ever follow up on it. Even after the Public School Finance Board provided its own legal opinion in February 2005 that the school division was breaking the law, Bjornson took no action.

We might well wonder what Peter Bjornson was doing when he should have been running his department. The Minister, to put it mildly, does not run a tight ship. He has shown that, to a large extent, he lacks basic managerial instincts.

On top of all this, Bjornson put a large chunk of his credibility in question when he was first confronted on this issue by Opposition MLAs in early May. During Question Period, Bjornson’s initial response was to claim that he had no prior knowledge of the land deal. A day later, Opposition MLAs produced a copy of a year-old letter, signed by Minister Bjornson and sent out to a private citizen a year ago, addressing some very specific issues relating to the Seven Oaks land deal. When confronted with this letter, Bjornson was forced to admit that yes, he had been informed about the land deal a year ago. Does this letter prove that Bjornson was lying when he previously stated he had no prior knowledge of the deal, or does it simply indicate he was the victim of a memory lapse? In a way, the answer doesn’t matter. The enduring lesson is that, whenever you deal with Peter Bjornson, be sure you get it in writing.


At 12:37 p.m., Anonymous Robert Snyder said...

I was the one who queried Bjornson in an email of May 2, 2004. Here is his "Official Reply" posted on my WebLog:

Bjornsons Answer

That is in writing? He doesn't write very well either!

Maybe the law courts could instruct him on how to answer questions asked of him (honestly).


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