Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Civil service to serve, not dominate, the public

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Some time ago I wrote a column about a parking ticket I thought was so outrageous that I decided to plead not guilty.

Many hours were spent on the preliminaries and preparing evidence, which included numerous photographs. Finally, I appeared in court and waited my turn, only to be advised by the Crown prosecutor that the charges were dropped.

The article intended to show how the citizen could be inconvenienced by unthinking bureaucracy and numerous favourable comments were received.

In principle, the subject is very important even though a parking ticket may appear trivial.

Today I received another parking ticket.

I was scheduled to meet client at my downtown office at 11 a.m. I drove downtown and parked on St. Mary Avenue near the Great-West Life building. I arrived shortly after 10:30 a.m. and put money in the parking machine so I would have one hour of parking.

I kept my appointment with time to spare. I left the office and walked outside where, from about 45 metres, I could see my car had been ticketed.

I was astonished. I was certain I had not overstayed my time and wondered whether I had parked in a prohibited spot or had misplaced the voucher.

The voucher was properly on the windowsill and the termination time read 11:40. My watch read 11:40 so I thought there was some mistake.

The reading on the ticket gave the date and then the time of the ticket. The ticket time was, believe it or not, 11:40.

Is it possible some parking enforcer spotted my car at exactly the right time and waited for the clock to strike 11:40 so that he could gleefully give me a $30 parking fine?

No other conclusion is possible.

Eager to avoid having to shell out $30, I immediately drove over to the Winnipeg Parking Authority Office on Portage Avenue near Colony Street.

A pleasant-looking young man behind a counter asked what he could do for me. I showed him my parking voucher and asked him how much time I had to park.

"Until 11:40," he responded.

I then showed him the ticket, which clearly read that it was written at 11:40. The young man was visibly surprised and tried to hide his embarrassment. He asked me to fill out a form and told me not to pay the ticket.

I was a member of a government for almost eight years. I have also been involved in legal matters involving governments for more than 60 years.

I have recognized in my experience both as a lawyer and as an administrator statutes and regulations often put power in the hands of people who are ill-suited to exercise it.

Give a relatively ordinary person a pencil and a desk to sit behind where he or she can exercise power over the average citizen and you have created a potential menace.

Not all so-called civil servants are guilty of overusing their limited authority arbitrarily, but the very nature of their authority creates a danger that should be conscientiously avoided.

If I could go back and relive my years of authority, I would make it a No. 1 priority to instil in the civil service an understanding that it is there to serve the public, not dominate it.

Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer

and former NDP cabinet minister.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 6, 2012 A11

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