Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Full-time nuisances on council

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The antics of a city councillor who thought he could rescue the city by negotiating a land deal in secret, with the blessing of the mayor, is just the latest in a series of boondoggles that raise questions about whether the city would be better served if it returned to a policy of electing part-time councillors.

Full-time politicians seem to have too much time on their hands to interfere and corrupt, yes corrupt, the business model of civic government. It's hard to point to a single tangible benefit or improvement in public-policy management since the city started electing 15 full-time councillors in 1992.

The idea was politicians should be in control, not bureaucrats, but the separation of powers was never properly explained or respected. Since council adopted the full-time model, at least two reports have complained councillors were too involved in civic business, while managers were afraid of upsetting their masters, resulting in the politicization of the civil service.

The pathetic part is many councillors don't understand, or refuse to accept, the important distinction between governing and managing.

Coun. Justin Swandel, for example, thought he was a better negotiator than the professionals in the city's planning department. When they failed to secure an agreement with Shindico Realty to avoid expropriating property that is being used for a city fire hall, Mr. Swandel swung into action.

He also failed to convince Shindico to back away from its demand for $1.8 million for land valued at $1 million. The developer has so far refused to explain why it never told the city or anyone else until now the fire hall on Taylor Avenue would devalue an adjacent piece of property it owns.

In any event, the point here is Mr. Swandel had no business acting as a civic negotiator. He is neither qualified nor trained for such a role. More important, he undermined administrators and created the dangerous impression councillors are deal makers.

This approach has resulted in poor business deals in the past, which were outlined in a 2000 audit report into a real estate transaction. The audit said the city ended up making bad decisions and losing money because councillors interfered in the process of negotiating real estate deals.

In one case, councillors on the property committee met with the owner of a building (Shindico) without the presence of the administration to discuss a leasing deal, which the city eventually approved, even though it cost the city millions of dollars more than necessary.

Administrators had been directed by the committee to recommend the deal, even though they knew it was a disaster, which was a failure of their professional responsibility.

A previous report by then lawyer John Scurfield said political interference and bureaucratic bootlicking resulted in the city losing $200 million in tax refunds from assessment appeals over a 10-year period. He cited the failure of both elected and administrative officials to understand and adhere to their respective roles.

The recent land-swap deal, for example, exposed what can happen when administrators bypass council.

Mayor Sam Katz has shown he doesn't agree with Mr. Scurfield or the city auditor, so no leadership on this issue can be expected from him. Candidates in the fall civic election, however, should make governance a campaign issue.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2014 A8

History

Updated on Friday, February 28, 2014 at 8:19 AM CST: Corrects typo

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