Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City hall review needed

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Coun. Justin Swandel quit executive policy committee in a huff this week because he said he could no longer work with the other members, whom he described as inexperienced, self-interested and rash in their judgments. Mr. Swandel went on to say the executive committee was divided, broken and dysfunctional.

It was an unprecedented display of anger and even contempt for the mayor's inner circle, sentiments that are only partly based on a series of recent controversies at city hall. Mr. Swandel was upset that some members of EPC wanted to fire a few administrators, including chief administrative officer Phil Sheegl, over the mismanagement of a series of controversies linked to the building of fire halls.

For the most part, however, he simply lost confidence in their ability to manage problems and develop policy.

The councillor's complaints could be dismissed as just another one of those rants that are occasionally heard at city hall, but they come at a time when real questions need to be asked about the ability of council, the mayor's office and the administration to manage the city's affairs.

Mr. Swandel believes the fire hall debacle is partly based on the fact the city hasn't built much of anything in the last 20 or 30 years, with the obvious exceptions of roads and bridges, which are professionally managed.

So when the city says a deputy chief had the authority to swap three pieces of land for a fourth plot to build a fire hall, as well as the power to expand the size of another fire hall without telling anyone on council, well, how would they know? Is that the way it was done 20 years ago when the last fire hall was built?

The city has made blunders in the past under previous mayors, particularly with building leases and other property matters that were considered poor deals for the taxpayer, but the fire hall issues are different. It should have been easy for administrators to explain what happened, and why, but nearly three months after the controversies broke, taxpayers are still scratching their heads in confusion.

The new garbage and recycling master plan could also have been better-managed, possibly by rolling it out in shorter bits and bites, the way Regina is doing now without any problems. Did no one ensure the private contractor had enough equipment, staff and know-how to do the job?

Mr. Swandel believes -- and he is supported by other members of EPC on this -- that the mayor made a mistake four years ago when he disbanded two secretariats, or administrative support groups, that delivered policy advice, one to the executive committee and one to the CAO's office.

The old EPC secretariat was responsible to the mayor's inner circle and ensured it received the information it needed to make decisions on key policy files.

In the absence of a dedicated policy-formulation group, the executive committee and the chief administrative officer have relied on information from department heads and consultants.

The city eliminated its powerful bureaucratic structure about 15 years ago following a governance review, partly in an effort to strengthen the role of councillors.

Under Mayor Sam Katz, however, both the political and administrative functions appear to have grown weaker and thinner.

The time is right for another review of both structures and how they interact to ensure the politicians have the resources they need to provide broad policy oversight, while the administration is equipped to deliver accurate, timely and useful information. A member of EPC responsible for entire departments should have more support than an office assistant who answers phone calls.

The abilities of politicians and bureaucrats will always ebb and wane over time, but it should never get to the point where simple questions cannot be answered by anyone on either side of city hall's courtyard.

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 November 3, 2012 A16

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