Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City ethics watchdog needed -- but unlikely

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Saturday's column calling for the creation of an integrity commissioner at city hall prompted another call that morning.

Jenny Gerbasi, city council's most vocal opponent of Mayor Sam Katz, rang my cellphone to remind me of something. City council, at her request, has already passed a motion calling on the province to create a "conflict-of-interest commissioner," which is an integrity commissioner by another name.

Originally, Gerbasi had called for the creation of an ethics watchdog with bite in the fall of 2008, when Katz's close friend and now Winnipeg CAO Phil Sheegl was introduced to city hall as the planning, property and development director.

It took a year, but in the fall of 2009 Gerbasi got her "conflict-of-interest commissioner" motion passed by one vote. The mayor was among a half-dozen dissenting members of city council who found themselves on the losing side.

It was a stunning victory.

Not that it mattered.

The NDP government -- which has a conflict-of-interest commissioner position of its own -- ignored city council's desperate plea for someone to watch over them.

So why was the province so dismissive of council's call for help to put an integrity or conflict-of-interest commissioner in place?

After all, the Selinger government went along with another request in the same motion, strengthening City of Winnipeg ethics laws by amending the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act.

Ironically, the province's answer -- that the city could create its own position of ethics commissioner -- is a betrayal of public trust in its own way.

And a gutless one at that.

Ontario didn't abandon its duty as the senior government when Toronto city council needed similar help a few years earlier.

In 2006, using the City of Toronto Act, Ontario created an integrity commissioner to advise city councillors on ethical behaviour, and to investigate and report back to council when a conflict was alleged.

That's the model Gerbasi's motion called for. It's also the method that delivered Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to court recently, where he faced both conflict-of-interest allegations and the prospect of being removed from office if found guilty.

But the Ontario government went even further in creating a system for ethical accountability among Toronto's civic politicians. It created an auditor general for Toronto, and made him responsible for assisting city council "in holding itself and its administration accountable for the quality of stewardship over public funds and for the achievement of value for money" in city operations.

Ontario also legislated a lobbyist registrar for Toronto. That position is responsible for "enhancing the integrity" of Toronto's decision-making process through public disclosure and regulating the conduct of lobbyists.

Winnipeg doesn't have a lobbyist registry like the province of Manitoba does. The city does have an auditor, of course, although given that Gerbasi has been getting hoarse calling for an audit of civic real estate dealings, it doesn't sound like the position here has the same kind independence and clout as Toronto's auditor general.

And, at the risk of getting hoarse myself, I remind you that Winnipeg doesn't have an integrity or conflict-of-interest commissioner like Toronto.

Which brings me back to why the province of Manitoba seems so reluctant to help the city help itself conduct business with integrity.

Maybe this story will help explain it. Back in the fall of 2009, when the Gerbasi-led motion passed, Manitoba's government was in transition, passing from Gary Doer, then-recently appointed Canadian ambassador to the United States, to his successor as premier, Greg Selinger.

During that process, Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard stood in the legislature on a point of order and accused Doer of being in a conflict of interest because he had represented Manitoba in Ottawa recently as premier after being announced as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's designated representative in Washington, D.C.

The Speaker of the House at the time, George Hickes, said it wasn't the Speaker's place to rule on such matters because he couldn't determine questions of law. And a spokesman for the province's conflict-of-interest commissioner said he couldn't comment either, as his role is only as an advisor to MLAs.

Which brings me to a question that suggests an answer.

How could the province create an ethics watchdog with real bite for Winnipeg's politicians, when its own can't even bark?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2012 B1

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