Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Selinger gov't must reject this bad idea

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Mayor Sam Katz and council have taken the extraordinary step of reworking the composition of a key piece of the city's government structure, months before an election that could return a whole new slate to city hall. The decision to rework the composition of council's executive policy committee would yoke the new mayor and council with a poorly considered model, poorly suited to a large metropolis with a lot of work to do.

Council this week showed bad form in adopting a bad idea: It asked for provincial approval to change how EPC members are chosen. Upon Mayor Katz's prompting, council decided three of seven EPC members should be chosen by city council at large. At present, the mayor selects all of his or her six committee colleagues on EPC.

By design, Winnipeg's mayor holds considerable, but balanced power. He or she wields influence through the office's budgets, and in its power of appointment.

Membership on EPC is a plum position because the committee is the last step to approving, for council's final vote, an array of policy and other decisions passed up from subordinate committees. EPC's members hold considerable sway, then, in both the formulation and the fate of policy decisions -- if there is consensus there, a decision is more likely to win approval from council's 15 members.

The investing of such power in the mayoralty was a key change in broad reforms to Winnipeg's governance in the late 1990s. The city moved from a model in which a board of commissioners wielded strong authority over the administration to what is called the strong-mayor model. But unlike other jurisdictions, specifically in the United States, there are checks on the power of Winnipeg's mayor: He or she cannot tell EPC members how to vote and the mayor still must work to get sufficient votes at full council to approve a decision.

It is real influence checked by the ultimate power of the whole elected body, and was seen as the best way to provide modern representative leadership for the city. In this way, the mayor -- chosen by all Winnipeg voters -- can be held accountable for setting priorities and getting them done, or not. It is not the only measure to assess the mayor, but it is a key consideration when electors are called to the polls.

The decision to mess with that, to yank from the mayor's hold such influence, means the mayor carries less accountability for the work of city council. In sum, Mr. Katz proved himself unequal to the challenge of leadership; council was often fractious and slow to get things done. This change would make consensus less likely in future councils.

Winnipeg has some tough work on its plate. Rapid transit is but one file dogged by tight budgets and warring opinions among decision-makers. Winnipeggers are expecting good solutions to chronic overspending in capital projects and public works contracts, for example, a problem that might be fully described in the coming report from an external audit of past contracts.

This is not a time to diffuse power and accountability. It is unseemly this council should foist upon a new slate, to be chosen this fall, a new model, formed largely absent advice on its consequent impact. It's a bad move. The Selinger government must refuse to amend the city's charter to enact this change.

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 28, 2014 A16

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