Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selling taxpayers on policy advisers

Mayor faces public-relations conundrum

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To several generations of geeks, it's called a Kobayashi Maru scenario -- a no-win situation in which every decision results in some sort of unfavourable outcome.

In 2009's Star Trek reboot and the 1982 classic The Wrath of Khan, young military candidates are presented with a rescue simulation that results in their destruction no matter what course they choose.

Winnipeg's Mayor Sam Katz faces a similarly unwinnable test with the 2013 operating budget, which includes a plan to spend $722,000 to reverse a five-year-old decision to get rid of City of Winnipeg policy advisers.

Back in 2008, former chief administrative officer Glen Laubenstein engineered a public-service reorganization that saw the city dissolve two small but important departments. One was the CAO secretariat, which was a group of policy analysts and other apolitical support staff who worked directly for the city's top civil servant.

The other was EPC secretariat, which also contained policy advisers but functioned in a more political role. EPC secretariat's small staff co-ordinated the agenda-setting efforts of city council -- primarily the mayor and executive policy committee -- with the work conducted by city administrators.

The point of Laubenstein's reorganization was to eliminate redundancy and maybe save some money. Most, but not all, of the advisers from the two dissolved departments soon left the city.

Their absence was noticed quickly as 2009 turned out to be a gong show. A new garbage-collection plan was unveiled only a week before a council vote. A complex proposal to replace the water and waste department with a new utility was botched during the rollout phase, amended on the fly by council and eventually tossed aside. Property officials tried to slide the controversial Parker land swap by council days before a summer recess.

Initially, the mayor resisted the idea he needed to re-hire policy advisers. But as the dearth of oversight began to extract a greater public-relations toll, Katz added experienced advisers such as current chief of staff Bonnie Staples-Lyon to his office. Phil Sheegl, Laubenstein's successor as CAO, followed suit by adding former NDP cabinet adviser Etoile Stewart to his own staff.

Now, in the aftermath of a disastrous 2012 that included both the water-park debacle and the fire-paramedic station construction scandal, Katz agrees it was a bad idea to get rid of all the big brains.

"There's no doubt in my mind it was a mistake," the mayor told reporters after the budget was tabled. "And now we're bringing something back that's different, that will deal with more issues for less than half the money."

The 2013 operating budget calls for the city to rehire four advisers to staff a new "policy development and communications office" that will resume the unloved but essential task of killing bad ideas before they are made public and otherwise managing the direction of city hall.

The $722,000 tab will be offset by a $125,000 transfer from Sheegl's office budget. Overall, the spending is a drop in the bucket in a $921.6-million operating budget.

But that's still tough to explain to homeowners facing a 3.87 per cent property-tax hike. The idea Winnipeggers need to spend money to help city hall prevent itself from making dumb decisions likely won't go over well.

Hence the no-win situation facing the mayor. But it gets better, as the budget also includes $600,000 in additional spending on office budgets for councillors. The 2013 budget calls for every councillor to be able to spend $114,000 this year on assistants, advertising and other office expenses, compared with $74,000 in 2012. Again, councillors say they need this cash to better respond to residents.

That may be entirely legitimate, but good luck explaining that to homeowners facing their second property-tax hike in a row -- or the third, if you count 2011's frontage-levy hike.

Katz is correct when he says Winnipeg has low municipal property taxes compared with other cities. As well, he also made amends for the 2011 frontage-levy shell game, when he tried to claim $14 million in new frontage revenues would be devoted to fixing streets. That cash only replaced money removed from the roads budget.

This year, a one per cent property-tax hike really will be dedicated to road renewal. The budget documents prepared by city finance officials are even more transparent than usual.

But the public may not be in any mood to accept the idea of higher taxes or new spending on council budgets or hiring a quartet of policy advisers. From a public-relations standpoint, Katz really cannot win.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2013 A4


Updated on Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 8:21 AM CST: replaces photo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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