Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City hall needs an overhaul

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The breakdown in authority and trust at city hall following an audit into the flawed construction of four fire-paramedic stations is unprecedented, but it can be a wake-up call for renewal if council sets a new course for itself and the administration.

The city has witnessed many construction boondoggles over the years, but the fire-paramedic scandal is unique because it involved the city's top administrator, Phil Sheegl, who apparently had contempt for council's oversight role and was determined to ram through the project without political interference.

Actually, the old board of commissioners, a group of powerful senior administrators, was accused of operating in much the same way before it was turfed in 1997 by former mayor Susan Thompson and replaced with a chief administrative officer, but it never found itself the subject of an audit and demands for a police investigation.

Former councillor Mike O'Shaughnessy, a longtime chairman of the property committee, said on these pages recently that the civic administration, possibly with help from a few senior councillors, routinely operated in much the same way as Mr. Sheegl.

The political process at city hall is so cumbersome and time-consuming that enterprising administrators and politicians over the years have found ways to circumvent the rules and get the job done. Former mayor Glen Murray was accused of just that in the way he announced out of the blue plans to tear down the Eaton's building and replace it with an arena.

When councillors were made full-time politicians in 1992, followed by the elimination of the board of commissioners five years later, it was assumed elected officials would become policy-makers, while administrators would carry out orders.

It never quite worked out that way, however. Powerful, experienced councillors knew how to work the system, while senior administrators continued to resent what they considered political interference. It was the beginning of the us-versus-them mentality that still plagues civic operations.

There has been no real effort over the years to clarify their respective roles, but each side would benefit from a thorough review.

Councillors, for example, need to ask themselves where they were when the administration was closing some fire halls and building new ones. Not one of them apparently thought to ask for a report until a reporter accidentally discovered the city had built a fire station on land it did not own.

A previous real estate audit in 1999 criticized councillors for interfering in property matters, including directing administrators to sole source a long-term leasing contract to Shindico Realty in a deal that represented poor value for the money.

The auditor in 1999 said councillors should govern, and managers should manage. That's fine in theory, but the city needs to refine the idea and reinforce it with regular seminars for both sides in the public-service equation.

The city should have hired an ethics commissioner years ago, but the creation of such a position will not solve every problem. Ultimately, the city needs to make governance part of an ongoing learning process.

As for administrative problems, well, previous audits have said city managers just aren't equipped to manage big projects, which explains why many projects have been over-budget, even with price guarantees.

This was one reason why the city hired an international company, Veolia, to help manage the construction and maintenance of its sewage treatment plants. The city, however, needs to get a better grasp on when and how to hire outside project managers to supervise certain jobs.

The powers at city hall, meanwhile, need to take a deep breath and exercise some restraint. Presently, they're acting like a barnyard of chickens, strutting, pecking, squawking hysterically and acting without thinking.

The problems exposed in the fire-paramedic station audit are serious, but it's premature to demand that more heads roll or that the RCMP be summoned to investigate.

As for Mayor Sam Katz, his mayoralty is a study in the failure of leadership. He unfortunately has lost the confidence of council and he should not run for office again next year. He and the rest of council, however, can still salvage something from the mess by launching a process for renewing the operation of council and its administration.

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 October 26, 2013 A16

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