Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A mayor with power, purpose

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The mayor is the only politician who can claim to represent an entire city. Councillors, MPs and MLAs are elected in wards and constituencies by a relatively small number of people.

In the case of premiers and prime ministers, their claim to provincial or national authority derives entirely from their position as leader of a party, which is what voters are really choosing on election day.

Municipal voters, however, award power to a single individual, the mayor, who personifies the city and who theoretically has a mandate to carry out his or her platform. Indeed, a mayor will be said to have broken his or her promises if they are not fulfilled.

Of course, if the mayor has no real power, if he or she is just one vote among many on a council of equals, then it can be nearly impossible to achieve anything, particularly if faced with a fractious or ungovernable council.

Winnipeg has a so-called strong-mayor model because the mayor has the authority to select members of executive policy committee, who earn a higher salary and enjoy a modicum of prestige. The theory is the mayor can control this group and its votes by threatening to withdraw their privileged position.

This has been the system since 1998 when the province amended the old City of Winnipeg Act to give the mayor more authority. A proposal to also give the mayor two votes, instead of one, was rejected.

As recent history has shown, however, the ability to appoint an inner council does not give the mayor the unchallenged authority enjoyed by a premier.

Under former mayor Glen Murray, members of EPC frequently voted against the mayor, helping to defeat important initiatives. EPC members also quarrelled in public with Mr. Murray and shouted at him in private.

Still, it seemed to work. Mr. Murray achieved many of his goals, but it wasn't because of his control of executive policy committee, which does not even add up to a majority of votes on council.

Mr. Murray understood city hall and policy development. He also understood the concept of power and how to bend arms. He knew how to build consensus.

Mayor Sam Katz, on the other hand, has been saddled with an unruly council. Some of his most vocal critics have sat on EPC, which has frequently split on important matters.

Council has not operated smoothly, which is partly a result of the blend of personalities and partly simple democracy, but the mayor also bears much blame. He has not been adept at influencing or controlling the behaviour of councillors or administrators. He came to office in 2004 without any political experience and there is no evidence he was ever interested in public policy.

Former mayor Susan Thompson also lacked political experience when she was elected in 1992, but by her second term she had figured it out and she exercised great power in the end. Regrettably, Mr. Katz seems to have never grasped the power of his office.

He now wants to weaken his office by allowing council to elect half the members of executive policy committee. Ironically, he's doing it in response to criticism he wields too much power.

He says the public will see nothing has changed once he surrenders part of his power, which is undoubtedly true in his case.

Mayoral candidate Paula Havixbeck is also threatening to weaken the mayor's office by rotating membership of EPC through all of council.

She would also spread the salary bonus of EPC members among all councillors, which is ridiculous. It means councillors with more responsibility will be paid less, while those with fewer duties will be paid more.

The power to appoint EPC is not as meaningful as naming a cabinet, but it is the one thin sliver of power a mayor can use to forge consensus, influence others and generate public support. The fact Mr. Katz has failed in that task is not a basis for weakening the office.

The mayor's powers should remain unchanged. The next mayor may find they are necessary to fulfilling his or her mandate.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 A16


Updated on Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 9:53 AM CDT: corrects typo in Paula Havixbeck

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