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Best mayor Winnipeg never had

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Most people in Winnipeg today probably couldn't name their deputy mayor, but for a brief period in the 1970s the deputy mayor was the most powerful elected official at city hall.

For most of that period, the job was held by Bernie Wolfe, whom some would argue was the real mayor of Winnipeg, and not his rival, the charismatic and mercurial Steve Juba.

Back then, the members of executive policy committee were elected by council -- not appointed by the mayor as they are today -- and the deputy mayor was selected by EPC, which he also led, making Wolfe the political leader of the city until the system changed at the end of the 1970s.

Juba had a bigger profile, but, according to Wolfe, he lacked the power and the personality to implement his ideas. His role was largely confined to cutting ribbons, representing the city at official functions, handing out gifts, including a cigarette lighter emblazoned with the city crest, and occasionally using his position in a bully pulpit to promote his ideas and strike out at people and plans he did not like, Wolfe said.

The real power was wielded by Wolfe and the pro-business Independent Citizens Election Committee, a political grouping that held a majority of seats on council.

It was in this context that Wolfe and senior city officials, who he said were considered to be among the best in the business anywhere in Canada at that time, met regularly in a private dining room in the basement of the Centennial Concert Hall with then-premier Ed Schreyer and cabinet ministers Sid Green and Saul Cherniak.

"We had regular meetings, sometimes twice a month," Wolfe said in an interview.

Juba never attended. The discussions were often blunt and angry as the two sides sought agreement on priorities for the city, he recalled.

The city's inability to raise the revenues it needed to accomplish its goals was an issue then, too, he said. But disagreements were worked out in private, rather than in public, as has often been the case over the last 20 years.

One example was a civic proposal to spend $800 million on a 30-year plan to build freeways and an underground rail system throughout Winnipeg following a six-year study that cost $300,000, an enormous sum in those days.

The city wanted to fund it with a tax on motorists, since they would benefit from the improvements, and with grants from the province and some funding from local ratepayers, but it stalled over a lack of support and went nowhere.

"If Winnipeg is to grow," municipal official D.I. MacDonald said ominously at the time, "then there's no question that these facilities are required."

He noted that the province and federal government needed a plan for funding of urban transportation, which cities could not afford on their own.

The plan had been prepared in the 1960s when Wolfe was a councillor on the Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg, which was responsible for regional planning and improvements.

At that time, Wolfe says he suggested to then-premier Duff Roblin that the province introduce a one per cent sales tax to help the city finance its requirements. "He said, 'That's a great idea,' and went ahead and imposed the tax, but he kept it all for himself."

The city made other efforts in the 1970s for a revenue-sharing agreement with the province, but they were all rebuffed.

The province, then as now, had its own priorities and creating one great city was not one of them, then as now. As well, then as now, the province believed it knew what was best for the city and that it, uniquely, had the skills and the responsibility to determine those needs, weighed against all its other priorities and obligations.

Despite the failures of the past, Wolfe said he believes the city and province have to start sitting down on a regular basis, the way they once did. In fact, he believes a meeting between all three levels of government is long overdue to determine how best to divvy up taxpayers' money.

The city may have modernized its political structure, but its ability to finance its operations is as backwards as ever, he said.

"The size of a person's roof doesn't reflect ability to pay," Wolfe said, explaining property taxes are regressive and antiquated. Property taxes should pay for services to property, such as garbage collection, sewer and water, and fire and police protection. But services to people, such as parks and recreation, community clubs, Transit and regional streets and freeways, should be funded through income taxes or some other method that reflects ability to pay, he said.

Education should not be funded by property at all, he said. "I don't understand why they aren't talking about that" in the municipal election.

He said he urged Judy Wasylycia-Leis to run for the mayor's job because he is disappointed in Mayor Sam Katz.

"I felt she would bring a fresh approach and she has considerable experience in government," he said. "She's got the background and experience."

It's a somewhat remarkable endorsement, considering that Wolfe, a Liberal who ran federally and provincially, including one campaign against Ed Schreyer, had a reputation as being as pro-business as Katz.

But he said "Sam hasn't lived up to expectations" and it's time for a change.

At 88, Wolfe is still active and he follows political affairs closely. He believes the city has missed many opportunities for greatness in the past -- the failed transportation plan, for one -- but he never stops hoping it will all turn around following one of those old-fashioned meetings in a basement restaurant between people with the power to make good things happen.

He might be one of the best mayors Winnipeg never had.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 6, 2010 A14

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