Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Reality sours vision for better city governance

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What would George Cuff think now?

You might remember Cuff, an Alberta consultant who specializes in municipal governance, helped reinvent Winnipeg city hall in the late 1990s.

A report by Cuff led to the disbanding of the board of commissioners, a committee of senior public administrators that each oversaw a tranche of city services. The board was replaced by a chief administrative officer (CAO) who functioned as the chief liaison between bureaucrats and council. Eventually, several deputy CAOs were added to strengthen reporting to the CAO.

These changes were celebrated at the time as a restoration of the supreme authority of the elected council, a move that would put decision-making back into the hands of those chosen by voters to make decisions. Many, including then-mayor Susan Thompson, believed council was being bullied by bureaucrats. Now the city would be run more like a business, restoring accountability and transparency.

At least that was the plan.

Very few observers now believe the abolition of the board of commissioners improved accountability and transparency. Winnipeg is now suffering through an era in which the mayor and a hand-picked cadre of councillors wield an inappropriate amount of power. Too many controversial decisions are made without proper explanation. Witness the frequent abuse of process, the introduction of spending motions without warning or proper vetting, the constant transgression of ethical limits and the all-too-frequent use of in-camera proceedings to conduct business that once was subject to public scrutiny.

In the supposedly bad old days, journalists had unfettered access to the commissioners. During council debates, the commissioners were quoted in news reports as subject matter experts and they had the resumés to back up that role. Objective? No, it couldn't be said the commissioners were completely without bias; they were bureaucrats and so probably believed there was great value in public administration, a view not always shared with council. However, the commissioners were also an effective check and balance on a council that always has been somewhat clueless about governance.

For politicians weary of the push back from the commissioners, Cuff was a godsend. With the best of intentions, he created a philosophical context for the elimination of the board, a move that had very little to do with governance and everything to do with eliminating a nagging source of internal opposition.

More importantly, however: Did the elimination of the board of commissioners contribute to the woeful state of governance we see today? The package of change unleashed by Cuff, and enshrined in amendments to provincial law, included structural measures that gave the mayor more power over the form and function of decision-making at city hall. This was consistent with the Cuff philosophy, namely that local government must be led by one leader, not by committee.

However, Cuff has never written or said anything that would support the current state of governance at city hall, where councillors regularly wilt in the face of the power wielded by the mayor. Perhaps most importantly, neither Cuff, nor the province with its legislative amendments, saw the need for any checks and balances on the powers of the office -- something like an ethics commissioner who would guide the mayor away from conflicts of interest. Mayor Sam Katz's current tribulations seem proof enough that someone should have foreseen the need for some sort of check.

Cuff has been represented as an advocate of smaller, more business-like governance where elected officials hold supreme dominance over public administrators. This is a fantasy. Cuff has always argued for a thoughtful balance between the mandate of elected officials and the expertise of public administrators, something that does not exist in Winnipeg right now.

The Cuff fantasy is, lamentably, pervasive in this. Former Coun. Mike O'Shaughnessy recently argued in a Free Press column that the elimination of the board of commissioners, which returned control of city hall to council, was in large part responsible for a decade-long freeze on property taxes. He suggests bureaucrats had somehow stopped them from doing this before. Is that because the bureaucrats were warning them politically motivated tax freezes would cripple city infrastructure? We don't want council distracted by fact when setting tax rates.

It could be assumed that with every one of his reports and each sequence of recommendations he makes on improving governance, Cuff expects everyone to work together in pursuit of better governance. Cuff can hardly be blamed if council, which complained that it was being bullied by senior administrators, is now happy to be bullied by the mayor's office.

It would be fascinating to bring Cuff back to have a look at what has become of his original vision. It's hard to imagine he would want to take credit for what we've become.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2012 B1

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