Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City hall needs an overhaul

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Can one person single-handedly undermine an entire civic administration? A lot of people at city hall seem comfortable with that hypothesis following three devastating real estate audits that exposed incompetence, favouritism and contempt for civic policies and public process.

The great-man theory of history, however, is also somewhat unrealistic in this case. One individual, no matter how powerful and how intimidating, cannot wreck the reputation of a major city without the help of others, either by wilful blindness, slavish obedience or simple ineptitude.

Phil Sheegl, the city's disgraced former chief administrative officer, has been identified as the main culprit in the mismanagement of a series of real estate transactions that cost the city millions of dollars as a result of poor practice, circumvention of policies and processes, and favouritism to a small group in the private sector.

The city has not heard from the administration, but there is some evidence Mr. Sheegl actively discouraged civil servants from interfering in his ill-fated plans. When an unnamed civic official raised concerns about the unnecessary outsourcing of a contract, for example, Mr. Sheegl told the worker's boss he would not allow the employee to "meddle in the deal."

The former CAO also left a fire chief in charge of building four new firehalls, a job for which he was not qualified. The chief was told Shindico Realty was the preferred builder even before the competition was finished.

Not much is known about the extent of this abuse of power, which is often subtle, but civic employees need a mechanism for confidentially disclosing unprofessional or unethical conduct.

Civil servants at other levels of government have a duty to speak truth to power, and to warn their superiors when they feel they are being asked to stray into partisan matters.

At city hall, however, the CAO wields enormous power, more power, in fact, than the mayor. It leaves senior administrators with little recourse when they perceive wrongdoing, particularly if their boss has the ear of the mayor.

As for Mayor Sam Katz and the rest of city council, none of them can escape criticism, try as they might.

The mayor and councillors are supposed to provide oversight and demand updates on important projects. The administration withheld some important documents from council, but there was an astonishing lack of curiosity among the entire group.

Council's standing policy committees, for example, were set up to provide oversight and public input, but they failed miserably, partly because some information was never disclosed, but also because they failed to seek it.

As the overruns piled up, some councillors were quick to demand answers, audits and even the dismissal of senior officials.

Others, however, continued with their heads in the sand.

Last November, for example, a majority on council, including the mayor and his entire executive policy committee, voted against an independent investigation into how the new police building went nearly $80 million over budget.

Those opposed included Coun. Russ Wyatt, who now wants a judicial inquiry, and Coun. Brian Mayes, who has gone to great pains to remind everyone all the bad things at city hall happened before he was elected.

A previous real estate audit blamed councillors for meddling and micro-managing civic professionals; now it seems they have been too hands-off.

Council and the administration have always had difficulty working co-operatively, partly because of the grey areas in such matters, but also because of the mix of dominant and weak personalities on both sides over the years.

The rules of governance need to be clarified and strengthened so one man's actions, or the inaction of many, cannot undermine the integrity and efficiency of the entire operation.

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 July 18, 2014 A10

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